VANCOUVER — Heading into the back half of the CFL season, the B.C. Lions know there's still ample work to be done.
A 4-4 record has the Lions in third spot in the West Division, but with six games to go in the abbreviated 2021 campaign, playoffs are far from a sure bet.
The team needs to recognize just how big the final stretch will be, said defensive back T.J. Lee.
“We need to do a little bit more of everything," he said. "We need to have more film sessions, we need to put in extra work, work on our weaknesses, make sure we're communicating, make sure we did everything we can do to solidify a win and make those plays when they matter in crunch time in a game."
The home stretch begins Saturday when B.C. hosts the Calgary Stampeders (4-5).
The Stamps come to Vancouver energized after collecting back-to-back wins over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a home-and-home series.
Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell is also rounding into form after a broken leg hampered his start to the season. He had 296 passing yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against Saskatchewan last week.
The key to stopping the Stamps' offence is making Mitchell uncomfortable, Lee said.
"We know the looks he don’t like so just mix up our looks and attack him, make him feel uncomfortable in the pocket and make him throw off balance," he said.
While the Stampeders have momentum heading into the Week 11 matchup, the Lions will be a rested squad coming off a bye week.
Having a week without a game allowed players to reset both physically and mentally, said B.C.'s head coach Rick Campbell, but the team also came back a few days early to work on some details.
B.C. has struggled against divisional opponents this year, going 1-4 in the first half of the season. The lone win was a 15-9 victory over Calgary on Aug. 12.
In order to swing stats against the Stamps, the Lions will need to force shorter drives and create turnovers, Campbell said.
"We know it's going to be a tough game, we know it’s going to be close," the coach said.
The home side will be without a key piece against Calgary. Lucky Whitehead, the Lions' top receiver, broke two fingers in a 30-9 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers back on Oct. 1 and he's expected to miss two to four weeks after having surgery on his hand.
B.C.'s run game has also faced challenges this year. The Lions averaged 74 rushing yards per game in their first six outings of the season but totalled just 38 rushing yards in their last two games.
"We want to be more consistent, more efficient at running the ball. There’s no question about that," Campbell said. "There’s no question that for us to have success heading into this last part of the season, we’re more effective running the ball."
Rushing has been a focus at practice this week, said quarterback Michael Reilly, and he's confident the ground game is coming along.
"It’s got to show up on game day, so we’ll see on Saturday, but I like what I’ve seen so far," he said.
The Lions need to be more efficient on first downs, too, whether the play is on the ground or in the air, Reilly added. B.C. averaged just 3.2 yards per first down in the loss to Winnipeg in Week 9.
Heading into the final stretch of the season, the Lions need to have confidence in every aspect of their game, the veteran quarterback said.
"We’ve got to be able to carry that feeling for two months if we want to get to where we want to be," Reilly said.
"We know what we’re capable of, in terms of talent and scheme. We feel like we’re one of the best — if not the best — teams in the league when it comes to talent and scheme. But that only takes you so far and then it’s the execution and showing up on game day and making it happen."
CALGARY STAMPEDERS (4-5) AT B.C. LIONS (4-4)
Saturday, B.C. Place
SHAKEUP: The Lions released running back Shaq Cooper on Thursday. The 28-year-old American had 33 carries for 142 yards and a touchdown in five games for B.C. this year.
LEAGUE NOD: Stampeders running back Ka'Deem Carey earned player of the week honours after rushing for 109 yards in Calgary's 22-19 victory over Saskatchewan last Saturday.
HOME WOES: The Lions have struggled at home this season, going 1-3. Troubles at B.C. Place stretch back to the 2019 campaign when the Lions lost their final two home games of the year.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press