Finally finding a groove on the field, the Montreal Alouettes will face their stiffest test yet when they host the league-leading B.C. Lions on Friday night at Molson Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET).
After a rough start to the season during which they dropped three of their first five games, the Alouettes (5-3) are undefeated in August, riding a three-game winning streak. That run has helped them rise to the top of the East Division and second in the CFL overall.
"Over the last three weeks we've had [Brian] Bratton, [Jamel] Richardson, [Brandon] London and [Brandon] Whitaker all out but the team has taken it upon itself to step up," Alouettes coach Marc Trestman said. "The guys who have replaced them have done a good job, picked it up and everybody else has done their job. Defensively, it's the same thing."
One in particular has been wide receiver S.J. Green, who after struggling with consistency earlier in the season, has become Anthony Calvillo's go-to guy of late. The 27-year-old earned player of the week honours after a game-high 10 catches — for a second week in a row — and career-best 168 yards against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
He now leads the CFL in pass receiving with 737 yards on 45 catches.
"Just my mental mindset. Just knowing the situation, the games and what had to be done," Green explained of what's changed. "We needed a win [last week] and I knew I wanted to pull my end of the deal and play my best game for my teammates. That's all I've been doing lately, trying to put my best foot forward."
A large part of his success has been fuelled by Calvillo's continued stellar play, efforts that saw the Alouettes quarterback named the CFL's Offensive Player of the Month for August. The 40-year-old completed 64 of 97 passes this month for 1,024 yards, threw for seven touchdowns and was intercepted just twice.
"Coming out of the bye week, Anthony looked scary in that game against Edmonton, and the same thing last week against Hamilton," said Lions coach Mike Benevides. "When you take a look at it, you can't shut them out. You try to minimize the long play and really try to give yourself a chance to win the game at the end. Looking at the size and explosion of their receivers, you just try to minimize what they do."
The Lions (6-2) sit atop the CFL standings, largely due to a strong defence that leads the league in nearly every category. They've allowed just 141 points against — 101 fewer than the Alouettes — and given up just nine touchdowns (six passing, three rushing).
Heading into this week, they are the only team in the league to keep opponents below 300 average offensive yards per game (281.3).
"They are very smart. Their eyes are on the quarterback, they drive to the ball, they're physical, and they give you all you can handle," Trestman said. "They have very good players and they have a very good structure and scheme. That's a tough act to crack and not many have been able to do it up until now. We're going to give it our best shot."
It's a turnaround from the first half of last season, when B.C. stumbled to an 0-5 start. This year, the Lions won their first two games, then dropped their next two. Since then, they've reeled off four straight, during which they've allowed just one touchdown.
"A big part of it is just a belief system that we can win football games. There's always going to be good and bad in a football game but when you've learned how to win a lot of those games, you know how to overcome the bad that comes up," Lions quarterback Travis Lulay said.
While B.C. has been dominant on defence, it has been less so on offence. After scoring more than 30 points in their first two games of the season, the Lions have reached the mark just once since. They sit fourth in the CFL with 202 points and sixth in team passing.
They know it won't be easy against an improving Alouettes defence.
"You've really started to see their defence play fast and hard, and play good defensive football the last few weeks. We know we'll have our work cut out for us," Lulay said. "At the same time, we're coming on four wins.
"It's always tough coming here to play these guys and to play a team that's playing good football. It's always a challenge to withstand that initial surge of energy and emotion when you're on the road but you've got to do that and settle into the game."
Despite the Lions' tamer statistics on the pass, they have been better on the ground, aided by Lulay's ability to call his own number. The 28-year-old sits ninth in the CFL with 302 rushing yards on 43 carries.
"Any time you have a quarterback who can run and extend plays, it hurts you at times so we just have to contain him and just stay focused and really be aware of where he is at all times," said Alouettes defensive back Jerald Brown.
Alouettes receiver Jamel Richardson, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury, is questionable to return against the Lions.