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They finished tied Saskatchewan for the CFL lead in interceptions, had more pass knockdowns than anybody else and finished one quarterback sack shy of number one overall. Pretty impressive when you consider they lost their heart and soul Solomon Elimimian to a wrist injury in late July. GM Ed Hervey let it be known from the day he was hired that beefing up the offensive and defensive lines were necessary to improve on the last place finish of 2017.
Additions such as Odell Willis, Shawn Lemon, Davon Coleman and rookie Claudell Louis indeed made them nastier up front. In the middle, Jordan Herdman proved he can play elite defence at this level and Bo Lokombo emerged as the team nominee for Most Outstanding Canadian. And we’ve barely even mentioned the performance of newcomers in the secondary.
Now it begs the question: are they satisfied yet? Not even close. Especially after they ended the season by allowing a combined 244 rushing yards in back to back losses to the Roughriders and Stampeders.
“This is really not the time to reflect,” says defensive coordinator Mark Washington.
“If there is any type of reflection it’s for self-evaluation and making sure you’re prepared for the next step. We’ve made our focus on Hamilton, we understand what we need to get done so we’re just slowly trying to build to that for Sunday. What that ( the final two games) showed is that how easy it is to revert to bad habits, if you want to say. If you’re not ready to play emotionally, with some intensity then it’s going to get ugly no matter who you’re playing.”
Heading into Sunday’s Eastern Semi-Final tilt in Hamilton, Washington’s defence has already learned the hard way how quarterback Jeremiah Masoli can utilize the deep ball and make you pay.
“He’s a total quarterback in that he can get the ball to any spot on the field,” adds Washington.
“He knows how to put the ball into the hole, read the coverages and what not and then when all else fails he can take off and go. We’re going to have our hands full, but our guys can handle him.”
One glaring omission from the Tiger-Cats’ offence will be receiver Brandon Banks. The top playmaker suffered a broken clavicle in a loss to Ottawa on October 19th, his season now over. Washington expects Masoli and the offence to adjust accordingly.
“They have a stable over there,” he says.
“Luke Tasker is the real deal. You lose Banks, you lose Jalen Saunders and those are huge holes to fill, but they can fill them.”
Those injuries led to the return of Terrell Sinkfield Jr. who spent the last half of 2016 here in BC. They also added Marquay McDaniel to the fold just before they came out here for the start of that eventful home and home series.
As for the Lions, if there is one overlying sense from the first day of on-field preparation, it is the fact this entire organization is itching to hit the field for playoff football, something they did not experience last season for the first time in two decades. Even if they struggled to end the regular season and are entering the tournament as a fourth-place crossover team, Washington and the entire coaching staff feel they should be considered a threat to win it all.
“This is the whole purpose of it; 18 games are nice, but those are just to prepare you for the playoffs,” says Washington.
“Your goal, your objective is to always win the Grey Cup. Playoffs are just step one.”
As he stated off the top, there will be no time for reflection and satisfaction.
Elimimian was back on the practice field in a jersey and helmet, while still sporting a cast on his right wrist. After number 56 took a few reps at his familiar spot at middle linebacker, it prompted a question to Wally Buono regarding Elimimian’s availability for Sunday. The only thing Buono would confirm at this point was that Elimimian has indeed been taken off the six-game injured list.
“He is very close to playing,” the head coach confirmed.
“We took him off the injury (list) because he feels, right now, that he wants to give it a hundred per cent. He practised today, he’s going to practice tomorrow, he’s going to work on Thursday and we’ll hopefully make a decision then.”
Buono went on to say they will wait until Saturday if needed to see if the one-time league Most Outstanding Player can give it a try. That would lead us to believe Elimimian will be on the team flight Thursday afternoon regardless.
On offence, Travis Lulay prepares for his first playoff start since the 2013 Western Semi-Final in Regina. He was pressed into relief duty in back-to-back post-season losses at Calgary in 2015 and 2016 but admits the adrenaline feels a bit more familiar as it did in past years as a starter.
“There’s no hiding it, this is the opportunity you play for, is the chance to play in the post-season,” said the veteran quarterback.
“Playing on the road in the playoffs, it’s going to be a ton of energy in the building for the opposing team. You’ve got to find a way to settle into that game. I can draw on that past experience.”
Lulay was also asked if he was concerned about the inability to gain momentum on offence these last couple of weeks.
“It’s a clean slate, frankly. It just is. Hamilton has lost three in a row too and you think they’re worried about losing three in a row? It’s a clean slate, it’s playoffs and it’s a six-team tournament. We’re there, we earned the opportunity to be here so it’s just about how we prepare and play on game day.”
Talking Body Clocks….. Normally, the team would fly out two days before an Eastern division trip, but going on Thursday will allow some extra time to get accustomed to playing at 10:00 AM Pacific time. In order to further get adjusted, meetings and practice times have been moved up an hour for the entire week with players reporting to the facility at 8:00 AM. The team will fly home right after Sunday’s game regardless of the result and would operate under the same schedule for the Eastern Final in Ottawa next week.
This marks the 11th time in 23 years a West Division has qualified for the playoffs via the crossover. On four occasions, 2008, 2009, 2016 and 2017, the fourth place club has won the division semi-final. The 2018 Lions are looking to become the first in CFL history to advance to the Grey Cup after crossing over. To this day, no East Division team has crossed over to the West. Below is a year-by-year history of the crossover. Of note, it first came into play in 1997 when a U2 concert forced the Lions and Alouettes out of Olympic Stadium and onto the campus of McGill University. The Alouettes of course now make Percival Molson Stadium their home on a permanent basis.
East Semi-Final: Montreal 45 BC 35 *** Montreal returned the opening kickoff for a major and jumped to a 42-12 halftime lead before hanging on. This was Damon Allen’s first playoff start as a Lion.
East Semi-Final: Toronto 24 Saskatchewan 14
East Semi-Final: Toronto 28 BC 7 *** Buono’s first season with the Lions ended on a sour note after Dave Dickenson tore his ACL in practice just days prior to this contest. The visitors were forced to start Spergon Wynn behind centre.
East Semi-Final: Montreal 30 Saskatchewan 14
East Semi-Final: Edmonton 29 Winnipeg 21 ***The Blue Bombers played in the East division on a few occasions in league history, the most recent stretch coming from 2006-2013.
East Final: Montreal 36 Edmonton 26
East Semi-Final: BC 34 Hamilton 27 (OT) **** Casey Printers was the Lions’ winning quarterback after he was re-signed by the club in October of that season.
East Final: Montreal 56 BC 18
East Semi-Final: Toronto 42 Edmonton 26
East Semi-Final: Montreal 50 BC 17 **** Current Lions Chris Rainey and Brandon Rutley stood out in the Alouettes’ convincing win. After returning late in the regular season, Travis Lulay was unable to go do to his nagging shoulder injury and made way for Kevin Glenn.
East Semi-Final: Edmonton 24 Hamilton 21
East Final: Ottawa 35 Edmonton 23
East Semi-Final: Saskatchewan 31 Ottawa 20
East Final: Toronto 25 Saskatchewan 21*** The Riders were seconds away from making history before Ricky Ray engineered a late touchdown drive to punch the Argos’ Grey Cup tickets.