The betting favourites to win this year's Grey Cup looked like anything but Friday, as the B.C. Lions were trounced 44-32 on the road in Calgary. It was a great performance from the Stampeders, but an incredibly problematic one from what was supposed to be a dominant Lions team. This is only the first regular-season game, so it's far too early for B.C. to panic, especially with all the talent on their roster. However, there are several key areas they'll have to improve in if they're going to find success this year. Here are the three most important ones:
1. Rushing defence: Last season, the Lions were more effective against the run than any other team, allowing league lows in rushing yards against per game (76.4) and rushing first downs (89) and tying for second in opponents' gain per rushing attempt (5.2 yards). So far this year, that hasn't been the case. Calgary running back Jon Cornish, who established himself as one of this league's brightest stars last season, said in advance of the game he wasn't happy with the Lions' comments about feeling like they were the better team in last year's West Final, and he backed up his talk on the field, running over the Lions for 172 rushing yards (on 24 carries, a stellar average of 7.2 yards per carry) and two touchdowns and adding another 20 yards on a reception. Fortunately, that production's going to a good cause, as Cornish said before the game he'd donate $10 for every yard he gained to the Red Cross to help with flood relief efforts in Alberta: after the game, he said he'd round it up to $2,000. For B.C., though, that run defence is going to have to get much better if they want to contend for the Grey Cup. Perhaps they're missing the unpredictable Khalif Mitchell more than they expected...
2. Special teams: There were all sorts of special teams miscues in this one, from long-snapper Tim Cronk firing a ball over the head of punter Hugh O'Neill (forcing B.C. to concede a safety) to holder Thomas DeMarco yanking the ball away as O'Neill attempted an extra point (resulting in a flub that sailed under the bar). The coverage teams were actually pretty decent, limiting Calgary returner Larry Taylor to 13.5 yards per punt return and 19.6 yards per kick return, and O'Neill did a decent job punting (a 42-yard average) and kicking (he made his only field goal attempt, from 40 yards out) but B.C. couldn't get much going on returns, with Tim Brown averaging just 17.2 yards per kick return and 8.3 yards per punt return. The Lions will have to improve in all of those areas.
3. Offensive line play and communication: The guys up front were supposed to be a strength for B.C., as the Lions boasted a pair of winners of the league's most outstanding lineman award (Ben Archibald, 2010, and Jovan Olafioye, 2012) at tackle, plus some decent interior players. However, the line wasn't a strength Friday. Stampeders' defensive end Charleston Hughes beat them for three sacks, and other members of the line consistently pressured B.C. quarterback Travis Lulay. The Lions couldn't establish the run, either: part of that was thanks to falling so far behind early (they trailed 16-0 at the end of the first quarter and 31-6 at the half), but when they did try to give the ball to Andrew Harris, he was only able to collect 20 yards on five carries (four yards per carry). Lulay was the team's top rusher, picking up 55 yards on four scrambles. Most embarrassingly of all for B.C., centre Matt Norman botched a snap to Lulay late in the first quarter, which led to a fumble recovery by Calgary's Juwan Simpson and a subsequent Stampeders' touchdown. That line can't play like this if B.C. wants to win.
It's just one game, so it's far too early to write off the Lions. Keep in mind that last year's Toronto Argonauts, the 2012 Grey Cup champions, went just 9-9 in the regular season and looked downright disastrous at times, including a 36-10 blowout loss against Saskatchewan in October and a 44-32 loss to Winnipeg later that month. Thus, even the best teams look awfully terrible at times. The key here will be watching if B.C.'s able to learn from this loss and improve the areas they struggled in. If they can, there's still plenty of time to have the dominant season we all expected. If they can't, though, it could be a long year for Lions' fans.