One player doesn’t make a team, but a special player can make a major impact.
That’s what the B.C. Lions are counting on Saturday in Winnipeg, where mild-mannered CFL all-star and sack king Mathieu Betts must once again turn into a beast to beat down the Bombers in the West Division final.
“When it’s time to work, it’s time to work,” Betts said Wednesday after practice. “It’s not a different personalty, it’s just flipping the switch.”
Or as teammate David Menard said: “When he goes on the field, he’s going to expose you.”
If anybody is capable of getting to Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros, who led the league with 33 touchdown passes and ranked second in total yardage at 4,263, it’s Betts.
The quick, strong and destructive defensive end established a sack standard for Canadian players this season with 18, surpassing the single-season mark held by Brent Johnson and Jamaal Westerman. Betts also had three sacks on June 22 when the Lions won 30-6 in Winnipeg.
Lions defensive line coach John Bowman is a two-time Grey Cup champion with the Montreal Alouettes (2009, 2019) and the CFL Hall of Fame member knows about ability and longevity. He played 14 seasons and saw a lot, but nothing quite like the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Betts — especially when the ball is snapped.
“His get-off is special and second to nobody, and he doesn’t get tired,” said Bowman. “When you play that fast and recover that fast, we have a hard time getting him off the field. He’s always ready to go. He’s relentless. My get-off was good, but not that good.
“He has receiver-like ability to stop on a dime with his agility. If there’s an opening, he’ll expose it. And if you don’t give him anything, he’ll try to find it. And he’s just like me. He won’t accept any award as his own. It’s all team accolades.”
Betts rocketed from seven sacks last season to 18, and a lot of that had to do with more continuity within the organization and better roster cohesion.
“I played good last year, too, but we had the same guys on the line this year and the same coaching staff,” stressed the 28-year-old Betts. “That made life easier for me. I didn’t have to adapt. I didn’t have to figure out what I had to do.
“My quickness is what opens up a lot of things for me, so ideally, if I can have a good get-off and recognize the protection, that’s where I can be my best.
“And we have to play with high energy and make smart decisions.”
The Lions must also contend with the Bombers’ strong running game. Brady Oliveira had a league best 1,534 yards, averaged 5.9 yards per carry and finished with nine touchdowns. At a collective 139.1 rushing yards per game, the Bombers set a high standard. And running the ball well often decides playoff games.
If that isn’t enough, Oliveira also hauled in 38 catches for 482 yards and four majors.
“We need to be aggressive obviously at the point of attack and be sound defensively with our gaps,” said Betts, who’s a high school physical education teacher in the offseason. “If they have extra blockers, we have to keep a clear picture for our linebackers to flow.”
Betts was a free agent in 2022 and chose to leave Edmonton for Vancouver because of the club’s direction and Bowman was a player he idolized growing up in Montreal.
Betts was a University of Laval product, who gave up hockey in Grade 12 to concentrate on football. He became a two-time Vanier Cup champion (2016, 2018) and three-time winner of outstanding lineman in USport. He would become the third overall pick in the 2019 CFL draft by Edmonton.
“I heard about him at Laval and people said: ‘Hey, John. This player is just like you. You should check him out,’” recalled Bowman. “Fortunately, Edmonton didn’t see it and let him go.”
Betts remembers checking out Bowman when he attended games as a young pro football wannabe.
“I wasn’t paying attention to the technique,” said Betts. “It was the way he carried himself and was a superstar in Montreal.”
Fast forward and the speed and athleticism of today’s CFL athletes is stunning to Bowman.
“In my career, it was a lot more just going forward and going left and right,” he recalled. “Now, guys have to be prepared to go sideways and backwards and drop into coverage. I give them credit. They do more today than I would have wanted to do when I played. They play hard, practise hard and play for one another.
So, can Betts be a difference-maker Saturday? Can he help get the Lions to the Grey Cup in Hamilton?
“For sure,” said Bowman. “Support and energy is something he brings every play and we feed off that.”
EXTRA POINTS — Being named a CFL all-star Wednesday for the first time wasn’t lost on Betts. “I’m really proud for the work I’ve put in and everybody who invested time and believed in me,” he said. “It’s not a me award. I feel like I’m representing our D-line.”
Recommended from Editorial
B.C. Lions’ defensive lineman Mathieu Betts leading CFL in sacks with nine
Five things about the B.C. Lions’ success so far this CFL season
Bookmark our website and support our journalism: Don’t miss the news you need to know — add VancouverSun.com and TheProvince.com to your bookmarks and sign up for our newsletters here.
You can also support our journalism by becoming a digital subscriber: For just $14 a month, you can get unlimited, ad-lite access to The Vancouver Sun, The Province, National Post and 13 other Canadian news sites. Support us by subscribing today: The Vancouver Sun | The Province.