Khalif Mitchell's suspension leaves the Lions with a big hole to fill in the middle.Heading into this week's action, the B.C. Lions were tied for the league's best record with a 4-2 mark, and much of that was thanks to their stellar defence. Pick a statistical category and they likely topped it; the Lions led the league in first downs allowed (96; the next closest was Toronto, with 104), passing first downs allowed (60), allowed less net yards of offence (1663, 277.1 yards per game) than anyone else, had conceded the fewest rushing yards (423, 70.5 per game), had given up the least passing yards (1337, 222.8 per game), had allowed the least touchdowns (eight) and were second in overall points allowed (119, 19.8 per game). As was the case last year with the famed "Monsters of the Middle", though, much of that dominance has come from their defensive line, and there are questions about if they can maintain that during key defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell's two-game suspension.
It's not merely the defensive line, of course. The ridiculously stacked B.C. secondary has been remarkably effective, and linebacker Adam Bighill's emergence has kept that unit as a strength despite Solomon Elimimian's offseason exit for the NFL. Still, the line has played a critical role in the Lions' dominance, and has been crucial to the 16 sacks (tied for the league lead heading into this week) they've recorded thus far. Starting defensive ends Keron Williams (six sacks) and Khreem Smith (three sacks) and starting defensive tackle Eric Taylor (three sacks) have combined for three-quarters of the team's sacks, while rookie sub Jabar Westerman has added another one. Defensive coordinator Rich Stubler's fond of occasional exotic blitzes utilizing the diverse talents of B.C.'s linebackers and defensive backs, but on 13 of the Lions' 16 sacks, it's been the defensive linemen getting to the quarterback, and they've often done it while only rushing four. These guys aren't just pass-rushers, either; they've been a key part of that run defence that had allowed the least yards per game (70.5), tied for the least rushing touchdowns against (two) and had held opposing rushing backs to a league-low 4.4 yards per carry. B.C.'s defence succeeds in every aspect of the game, but much of that starts with the defensive line winning the trench battle.
From a statistical perspective, you'd think the Lions might not miss Mitchell that much. He only has seven tackles on the year and doesn't have a sack. Watching him in action tells a different story, though. Mitchell's a massive mountain of a man at 6'5'', 315 pounds and has a lot of strength, giving him an edge in size and power against most interior offensive linemen. His incredible agility makes him even harder to stop, and that's frequently led to opponents double-teaming him with a guard and a centre; there's a reason the NFL wanted him this past offseason. That tends to leave the rest of the defensive line with only one blocker to beat each, and players like Williams, Smith and Taylor have taken firm advantage of that. Without Mitchell, B.C. will be starting Westerman at defensive tackle alongside Taylor. Westerman's talented, but at 6'2'' and 285 pounds, he's more of a typical end than a tackle (indeed, that's how he's listed on the CFL site), and he certainly isn't likely to command too many double teams. We'll see if the Lions' other defensive linemen are able to get free without Mitchell occupying blockers.
If Williams, Smith and Taylor can continue to shed blocks, pressure quarterbacks and shut down the ground game even without Mitchell's threat in the middle, that's the optimal solution for the Lions. However, even if Mitchell's absence reduces the front-four rush they can generate, they may be able to find alternative solutions. Something that stands out about this B.C. defence is its versatility and the amount of talented blitzers they have available; cornerbacks Byron Parker and Dante Marsh can both bring heat off the edge, halfback Korey Banks is one of the league's best at sneaking into opposing backfields, Bighill, Anton McKenzie and Anthony Reddick can all crash down unexpectedly and supersub Lin-J Shell is a danger from wherever he lines up. With defensive masterminds like Stubler and head coach Mike Benevides running the show, too, expect B.C. to continue to find unconventional ways to threaten opposing quarterbacks and running backs. The Lions certainly will miss Mitchell; they don't have a replacement with his size or raw ability, and blitzing more can leave them vulnerable to strikes down the field. Given the array of other talented pieces they have, though, this may be more of a setback than a crisis.