June 29, 2017

Lions Invade Toronto For Start Of Key Road Swing

BC Lions quarterback Jonathon Jennings (10) slips past a tackle attempt from Toronto Argonauts' Ricky Foley (95) during first half CFL football action, in Toronto on Wednesday, August 31, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Chris Young

With football being a one game per week type of deal it is easy to either get too high after your last win or dwell on the latest setback. That hasn’t been an issue in the Lions Den this week. Following the season opening loss to Edmonton, the focus was quickly shifted to the first road test of 2017: your BC Lions are set to invade the Big Smoke for a Friday night clash with Ricky Ray and the Toronto Argonauts (4:00PM/TSN 1040/TSN 1/ESPN 3). It marks the first of three straight road clashes in the east with Montreal and Hamilton to follow.

Standing in their way of that first victory of the season is a rejuvenated Ricky Ray. The ageless quarterback passed for 506 yards in a 32-15 victory over Hamilton to start their first season under the GM/head coach tandem of Jim Popp and Marc Trestman.

Defensive co-ordinator Mark Washington has known all about Ray’s strengths, every since lining up against him in the 2002 Grey Cup when his Alouettes defeated Ray and the Eskimos.

“The fact that he was a rookie in the Grey Cup said it all,” explained Washington.

“He’s been special his whole career. In his second year he won a Grey Cup. He is the real deal.”

Fast- forward 15 years and the mindset remains the same. As a defence you must find a way to disrupt him by any means possible. It is especially important when you consider Washington’s group allowed a couple big plays and key times in their opener.

“We know the beast we’re facing this week in Toronto,” said Washington. “We have to finish drives and take advantage of opportunities when we get them. As you saw last week, Ricky was on fire.”

Perhaps the veteran QB’s most impressive attribute last week was the fact he used almost every weapon at his disposal. Three of his receivers eclipsed the 100-yard reception mark and they only ran the ball 16 times total for 39 yards. The featured tailback Brandon Whitaker only had nine touches. That tells you the linebackers and secondary will have to be prepared to make a big statement.

“They didn’t run the ball much, but we know better,” insisted Washington.

“We know Whitaker and (James) Wilder are very good backs. Our execution has to be precise. We can’t blow coverages; we can’t blow contained assignments and things like that. Our number one focus is playing our game.”

They have spoken since day one of camp about the need to make more plays. What an ideal time this would be to start.

Jennings Hits Reset Button

Although you can argue he didn’t have too much help from his blockers, Jennings knows he has to be more consistent in his decision making this week. The good news is practice has looked a lot crisper and as Jennings goes, so does the entire offence.

“We’re just re-focused this week in practice,” said Jennings. “We want to execute, look at ourselves and see what we can do to adjust and become a better team.

It’s going to be fun to get back out there. We have full confidence in those guys up front (offensive line) and I expect nothing less than them coming back to work this week and putting all effort into what we’re doing. I am proud to be behind those guys. We have to all focus on the small details and play with that passion.”

Look for him to get his two favourite targets more involved. Emmanuel Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham combined for just 63 receiving yards last week.

Kicking Talk

Both Ty Long and Swayze Waters will make the trip out east, with a decision on who dresses not expected until close to game time. Long should be commended for his dedication this week. The Alabama-Birmingham product was seen getting individual work done on the practice field until 5:00PM on Tuesday. While the armchair coaches point out missed converts (one was blocked, remember?) and a field goal try off the upright, you can look at it is a decent pro debut for someone new to the Canadian game.

Kicking legend Paul McCallum defended Long on Twitter this week, reminding folks that directional punting is an adjustment for any American rookie in this league. And guess what? Those single points wound up putting them in a position to take the lead late. Long had a good training camp. Let’s not give up on the kid just yet. Should Waters make his official Lions debut, he will no doubt be jacked up to face his old squad. He spent four years with the double blue and helped them win a Grey Cup in his rookie season of 2012. As far as the leg injury goes, Waters continues to get more comfortable with his punting. The field goals don’t appear to be an issue, but we will see what happens come game time.

 Quotable

 “It’s one thing to say you have confidence, but it’s another thing to actually display it. We’re going to out there and show what we’re made of. Last week we had a misinterpretation of what our team is supposed to be like to our fans. We want to erase that notion.”- Jeremiah Johnson on the need to bounce back.

 Wally Says: “The page has been turned. The tempo of practice was good and very aggressive. This is what we lacked last week in practice. Talking to them you can sense it was more upbeat, faster and more aggressive.”

 Three Keys To Victory

Make Life Miserable For Ricky: pretty simple to have this one at the top. Last week you saw vintage Ray picking apart the Tiger-Cats defence. Solomon Elimimian and the other veterans are zoned in on making this a priority, while the revamped defensive line should embrace the challenge. They know they have to be better after recording only one sack on Mike Reilly this week.

Clean Up The Penalties: 151 yards lost, including a 90-yard punt return touchdown by Chris Rainey, is never a recipe for success. Buono knows that and has put extra emphasis on not committing those special teams infractions this week. “You can’t be texting and driving at the same time,” was the Godfather’s analogy.

Quick Strike: They will want to get the opposing offence to play catch up early. One thing Jonathon Jennings and the offence did so well on the road last season was executive a big play early. This will be especially important considering they didn’t find the end zone until the fourth quarter last week.

Fan Poll
What position group needs the biggest improvement in Toronto this week?
Offensive Line
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Receivers
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Secondary
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Kicking Game
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 Extra Yardage

Analytical stat of the week: the defence will want to do a better job getting off the field on second down. The Eskimos converted on half of their attempts (10 of 20); which tied Ottawa for the best percentage of any team in week one. The Argonauts were just behind at 48 percent (12 of 25) against Hamilton.

This will mark the 100th career game for Marco Iannuzzi. The fact he continues to get better with age is a great sign and you can probably consider him one of the better Canadian draft picks of the Buono era.

 These clubs split two regular season meetings in 2016. The Argonauts prevailed 25-14 at BC Place, denying the Lions their first 3-0 start since 2012, while we returned the favour with a 16-13 victory on August 31st. Richie Leone booted the winning field goal as time expired.

Solomon Elimimian was the top performer against Toronto last season, amassing 21 defensive stops in the two games. 14 of those came in the August victory to break Dante Marsh’s single-game record for the club. Elimimian is eight defensive stops shy of Marsh’s all-time franchise record and beat his total for combined tackles (defence and special teams) in the week one loss to Edmonton.

A little history lesson as the Argonauts continue year two at BMO Field. They played on the same site at Exhibition Stadium from 1959 until their move to Skydome (later Rogers Centre) for the 1989 season. The Lions’ all-time record at Exhibition Stadium was nine wins and eight losses. They did not pay a visit to Toronto until 1962, their ninth season in the CFL. If you include the victory at BMO last season the club is 10-8 all-time in regular season games at the CNE grounds. Not a bad full season slate of road play.

TSN 1040 has all the action beginning with the pre-game show at 2:00 PM. Scott Rintoul and Giulio Caravatta have the call at 4:00PM. Viewers can watch on TSN 1, while those south of the border can tune in on ESPN 2. Fans in the lower mainland looking to watch with friends  and win cool prizes can head down to the downtown Shark Club location at 180 W. Georgia Street for the first of four road game viewing parties in 2017. Enjoy food and drink specials; while season members can enjoy 15 percent off food and non-alcoholic beverages.

Following this contest the club will bus to Kingston, Ontario for four days before taking on the Alouettes in Montreal Thursday, July 6th. They will have three days of practice at Queens University.

You can download the roster and depth chart for Friday’s game HERE!

Matt Baker: mbaker@bclions.com