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Story by Alex Rodgerson/ISN

Having won six of their last seven games overall the B.C. Lions will play their final road game of the season this weekend when the Lions take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosiac Stadium. After officially punching their ticket to the 2018 CFL playoffs last Friday night against Edmonton, the surging Lions now head into a showdown with the Roughriders with an opportunity to strengthen their chances at hosting a playoff game at B.C. place. For the Roughriders, Saturday’s meeting with the Lions will be their final game of the season, with Saskatchewan currently sitting second in the West and needing a win to hold off B.C. in the standings.

After a difficult start to the 2018 CFL regular season B.C. would sport a 3-6 record heading into Week 10, while facing the prospect of missing the post-season for the second straight year. However, the Lions would stage an incredible mid-season turn around and claw their way back into playoff relevance after seeing vast improvements on both sides of the ball. This past off-season Lions’ GM Ed Hervey would have his first chance to re-work a B.C. team that a year ago, simply wasn’t good enough.

Through a lot of addition and subtraction, Hervey would put together a solid roster of character individuals to go along with a respectable, veteran coaching staff. However, one of the challenges that always faces a new group of players and coaches, is getting to know new systems. This would show early in the season and lead to some early struggles, but after some time for the team to get acclimatized as well as some well-timed additions in Tyrell Sutton and DeVeir Posey, the Lions are now playing their best football of the season.

Photo: Johany Jutras / CFL
Photo: Johany Jutras / CFL

Despite possessing an offence that has only scored less than twenty-five points once in their last seven games, one of the biggest reasons for the Lions mid-season turn around has been their red-hot defence. With only two weeks left in the regular season the Lions’ defence currently leads the entire CFL in interceptions, pass knockdowns, and is only one QB sack behind Edmonton for first in that category as well.

Despite being without all-star linebacker Solomon Elimimian for most of the season, the Lions’ defence has still been one of the best secondary’s in the league over the second half of the season. Having three players in the leagues top-10 in sacks while Anthony Orange leads the CFL with five interceptions, B.C.’s defence has taken on a savage new identity that is primarily based on aggressive and opportunistic play.

B.C. Lions defensive coordinator Mark Washington is currently in his eleventh season as a member of the Lions’ coaching staff, surviving last off-season’s organizational purge by GM Hervey and continuing to find great success with the Lions. In his time with B.C., Washington has overseen fifteen West Division All-Stars and nine CFL All-Stars from the defensive back position, while also having spent five seasons as a halfback for the Lions from 2003 to 2007 and winning the Grey Cup in 2006.

I had the chance to speak with coach Washington after Lions’ practice on Wednesday afternoon, and asked him what he believes has been the biggest catalyst to the Lions’ greatly-improved secondary this season.

“It’s not just one thing, its several things.” said Washington. “It’s the maturation of the season. A team should start to get better as they play together more.”

Washington, who has now served twenty-two seasons as a player and coach in the CFL, was given the task this season of bringing together a talented, but unfamiliar secondary. While the teams’ unfamiliarity showed early, the group has come together in a big way the last several weeks. Coach Washington then continued to give his thoughts on the Lions’ refined defence.

“I think the players really started to understand the scheme better, and as coaches we started to understand our personnel better.” said Washington. “Then it’s just a normal progression and getting better.”

The 2018 B.C. Lions’ defence could arguably be one of the most dynamic in years. After the addition of former CFL all-star Odell Willis this past off-season to go with the mid-season acquisitions of Davon Coleman and Shawn Lemon, the Lions’ defence oozes with skill, intensity, and veteran leadership. Coach Washington then went on to talk about just how special it is to have so many leaders on this B.C. defence.

“It’s tremendous,” said the Lions’ defensive coordinator. “Men that aren’t afraid to lead, to say what they need to say, do what they need to do, and to lead by example. They have respect, and they see the fruits of our progress and want it to continue.”

Many different Lions could be credited with playing some of the best football of their careers this season. Of the defensive group, T.J. Lee is on pace to shatter his personal best for tackles in a season, while Garry Peters, Jordan Herman and the aforementioned Davon Coleman are also on pace for personal bests.

Anthony Orange needs just seven more tackles to match his career best from 2015, while the return of Micah Awe can also not be understated as a factor in the Lions’ turn around. Awe has totalled thirty one tackles in just six games this season and adds another dynamic to an already strong B.C. secondary. I then asked coach Washington about who he feels has really stepped up during the Lions’ recent success.

“Bo Lokombo has really been stepping up.” said Washington.

Originally a third-round pick of the B.C., Bo Lokombo signed with the Lions in 2014 and played two full seasons in 2015 and 2016 before making his way to the NFL in 2017. After appearing in four preseason games for the Baltimore Ravens, Lokombo would be released before spending time with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders practice squads. The native of Congo would return to the Lions in 2018, where he has led the team in tackles while adding four sacks and two interceptions.

“You can see him really start to develop as a football player,” said Washington. “He’s comfortable out there and he’s making plays.”

With the push for playoff positioning featuring a multitude of different outcomes that could play out, one could potentially see the currently fourth place Lions jump all the way to second given the right circumstances. If B.C. is able to defeat the Roughriders on Saturday as well as the Stampeders in their season finale, they will finish with the same 11-7 record as the Roughriders.

The other wildcard would be Winnipeg, who could also finish the season with an 11-7 record if they manage to win their final two games against Calgary and Edmonton. Given both the Lions and Blue Bombers will have one more meeting with first place Calgary, it would be a long shot to see both teams run the table in the final two weeks of the season. Saturday’s clash with the Roughriders gets underway at 4pm pacific.