Despite banged up secondary, B.C. Lions know defence can be a lot better


SURREY, B.C. – Wally Buono knows his secondary has been ravaged by injuries.

But that doesn’t mean the head coach and general manager of the B.C. Lions thinks giving up nearly 800 yards through the air the past two games, including almost 500 yards last weekend, is anywhere close to acceptable.

“I hope not,” Buono scoffed when asked if the unit is playing as well as could be expected with three starters on the shelf. “I couldn’t care less if we lost five starters. I hope that’s not what they think.

“If that’s the case, you might as well pack up and go home.”

The Lions have been humming along on offence in 2016, however the defence is a concern heading into the home stretch of the regular season. The Lions surrendered 437 yards to Edmonton in a 27-23 road loss to the Eskimos two weeks ago, then Ottawa combined for 543 through the air and on the ground in B.C.’s 40-33 home win over the Redblacks on Saturday.

“We can fix some of the issues, and some of the issues have to fix themselves,” said Buono. “The guys have to come play and understand things better. Every time they play, every time they practise, they should get better.

“As a secondary, linebackers, defensive line, we’ve got to be better.”

The Lions’ woes in the defensive backfield go back to July when they lost starting halfback T.J. Lee to a ruptured Achilles tendon before his replacement, Steven Clarke, who has the talent to be a starter, hurt his knee. Then starting corner Ronnie Yell went down with a broken foot last month, leaving the Lions paper thin on the weak side.

The club has veterans Ryan Phillips and Brandon Stewart on the strong side, along with safety Mike Edem in the middle, while Anthony Gaitor and Chandler Fenner, both former NFLers, are pretty much learning on the job.

“That (Ottawa) game right there, we took a step back as far as pass defence goes,” said Phillips.

The Lions still rank second in the CFL in total yards allowed per game at 352.4, but Stewart, who signed as a free agent from Hamilton this winter, said the recent lapses in the secondary have been hard to stomach.

“There’s not a defence you ever draw up where a guy’s supposed to be wide open,” said Stewart. “Most of the catches should be contested. We’ve just got to polish up and sharpen our tools, and I think we’ll be good.

“It will be that more much satisfying later on in the year knowing we’re three DBs down and we’re (still) where we want to be.”

The next two weeks on the schedule are critical for the Lions (9-4) with back-to-back games with the Blue Bombers (8-6) on deck, starting Saturday in Winnipeg.

A sweep would pave the way for the Lions to host the West Division semifinal — it doesn’t look like anyone will be catching the Calgary Stampeders (12-1) atop the standings — while a split or two Winnipeg victories would make life more complicated for B.C.

The Lions are on the cusp of qualifying for the playoffs for a 20th straight season, needing just a single point over their final five games. But at just 2-3 versus the West this season, and will all five remaining games coming against division opponents, they know there’s room for improvement, especially on defence.

“When it starts getting cold and things like that, you want your defence to be alive,” said linebacker Solomon Elimimian, the CFL’s leading tackler with 100. “The defence is going to be the catalyst to get you to the Grey Cup.”

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