Can the Lions get back on track? It all starts with the O-line

VANCOUVER — All eyes will be squarely on Mike Reilly the next time the BC Lions take the field. It’s no secret, however, that if the Leos are to improve in 2021, so too must their offensive line.

It just so happens that one of the most thankless jobs in all of sports is of utmost importance, to the point where one of the most hyped free agent signings in CFL history in Reilly was made to look pedestrian at times. The Lions’ league-high 58 sacks affected everything offensively, from a minus-four turnover ratio to an average of 323.8 net yards per game, second from the bottom of the league.

For Reilly, a perennial candidate for Most Outstanding Player, the last season was his worst since 2015, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt and throwing almost as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns (20). While receiver Bryan Burnham had a career year, Reilly rarely had time to throw, with BC ranking seventh in the league on passing attempts of 10-19 yards. On deep passes (20+ yards), Reilly’s passing efficiency of 76.1 was by far the worst among qualified.

Could a revamped offensive line — along with a new-look coaching staff led by Rick Campbell — change the team’s fortunes coming off a 5-13 season? In many respects there’s reason for optimism in BC.

The work started partway through 2019, when the club made some personnel changes including the addition of offensive line coach and former Lions guard Kelly Bates following a 1-9 start. After allowing 4.3 sacks per game through 10 contests, the Lions gave up just 1.9 sacks per game over their final eight games, including three outings with no sacks allowed at all.

In 2019, losing teams allowed 2.9 sacks per game, compared to 1.6 per game allowed by the winning teams. Teams that had more sacks in the game than their opponent won 75 per cent of the time. That’s almost as big of an impact on the outcome as turnovers (77% of winning teams having an edge in the turnover battle in 2019).

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Offensive tackle Ryker Mathews was one of the Lions’ marquee free agent signings in 2019 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

BC retained Bates’ services in the off-season but made some changes up front. Brett Boyko, Justin Renfrew, and David Foucault will not return, while the team signed highly-touted free agent Ryker Mathews to anchor the right side opposite Joel Figueroa.

Mathews played tackle opposite Chris Van Zeyl on a Hamilton O-line that allowed only 37 sacks and boasted the CFL’s top-ranked offence in scoring (28.2 points per game) and yards (395.8 yards per game), helping the Ticats finish 15-3 en route to a Grey Cup appearance.

While Figueroa and Mathews form a proven, all-American duo at offensive tackle, Hunter Steward and Sukh Chungh are good bets to start at guard. Steward, a sixth overall draft pick in 2013, has 62 career starts, including 13 or more in each of the last four seasons.

Chungh, a prized free agent signing in 2019, has 77 career starts to his name after being drafted second overall in 2015. He previously played a key role on a revamped Bombers offensive line that quickly became one of the CFL’s finest.

Depending on how the Lions balance the ratio, there’s a chance they’ll start three Americans on the O-line this season, with veteran Phillip Norman being the third at centre. With Shaq Johnson and Lemar Durant poised to start at receiver (Jevon Cottoy could also return after trying his NFL luck), BC would need to start three Canadians on defence. Bo Lokombo, Adam Konar, Isaiah Guzylak-Messam, and 2020 first overall pick Jordan Williams are all possibilities.

Starting three Americans would certainly off-set BC’s struggles on draft day, particularly along the offensive line. Peter Godber, the team’s third overall pick in 2018, played just one game last season, and has three career starts in two years. Charles Vaillancourt, the fifth overall pick in 2016, is no longer on the roster after failing to crack the starting lineup consistently (just 7 starts from 2016 to 2017).

The hope may be that 2018 third round pick David Knevel (21st overall) along with Godber will make positive strides in 2021, but BC will lean heavily on its American talent to provide depth up front. Tackles Marcus Norman, Victor Salako, and Kent Perkins all have extensive resumes south of the border, along with interior lineman Jarell Broxton. Undrafted national Andrew Peirson, along with tackle and 2020 fifth round pick Matt Guevremont, round out the group.

In any case, there’s some excitement around the 2021 BC Lions. Rick Campbell is a veteran coach with a long history of success. New offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic had success with Mike Reilly during their past in Edmonton. And the additions of new weapons including Dominique Rhymes, Lucky Whitehead, and Shaq Cooper bring the type of big play potential that was lacking in 2019.

If the offensive line can rebound from a forgettable season, the Lions could be a surprising force, resembling what many people expected in 2019.

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