There was a moment, there, late in the Western Semi-Final last Saturday, when Josh Woods looked over to his team’s sideline, smiled and stretched his arms out slightly. Turning his palms upwards, he shrugged a little shrug.
He seemed to be saying ‘I don’t know what to tell ya.’
The 25-year-old BC Lions’ linebacker had just made his eleventh and final tackle of the game.
“I don’t know what it was,” Woods said, when asked about his reaction. “The tackles just kept coming. So, yeah, just a funny moment.”
“Me and (Calgary running back) Ka’Deem Carey were kinda laughing about it. It was like me and him were doing one-on-ones all day. Me and him were just going at it.”
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After a game like that, it’s hard to imagine that Josh Woods won’t be a focal point in the defensive plans of the Lions when they head into Winnipeg for a date with the Blue Bombers in this Saturday’s Western Final.
And just like his personal battle with Carey, Woods may be asked to lock in and take on another hard runner again and again and again.
After all, it’s very likely that the Bombers will rely pretty heavily on their sensational running back, Brady Oliveira, to power the offense as they go in search of a fourth straight Gray Cup appearance.
“They’ve got a great, veteran offensive line and all those playmakers,” said Woods of the Bombers’ offense. “And, of course, Brady’s had a hell of a year.”
So has Woods, in this, his second full season with the Lions after signing with the team late in the 2021 campaign. As a back-up and a special teams tackler, he has been emerging more and more as this year has progressed, capped by his stunning display of tackling after getting the nod to start at weak side linebacker for the Lions in the Western Semi.
It was the first time he’d been made the ‘chosen one,’ if you will.
Through the first thirteen weeks of the regular season, the native of Ontario, California was listed as a reserve at middle linebacker, behind star Ben Hladik. When weak side starter Bo Lokombo was injured and placed on the six-game injured list prior to Week 15, Woods started in Lokombo’s place, but was bumped to back-up once again when Lokombo returned for the final two games of the regular season.
Over his four starts – including a seven tackle performance against the Bombers in Week 18 – Woods totaled 21 defensive tackles. All told in 2023, he amassed 45 tackles, 9 more on special teams, and 2 interceptions.
“Good player,” said Lions Head Coach Rick Campbell just after Woods’ tour de force performance in the Western Semi-Final.
“He’s a CFL-type linebacker in that he can handle himself in the box and he’s big enough to play the run and do all those things. But he can be rangy from sideline to sideline. You can drop him in coverage, do different things with him. He’s gotten better and better since he’s been here.”
Whether Woods remains at weak side or is shifted inside to the middle for the Western Final (Hladik injured his knee early during the Semi-Final and Campbell has said he seems doubtful for Saturday), a huge part of the mission will be to try to derail the Brady train as much as humanly possible.
It’s a tall order, considering the 1,534 rushing yards and nearly 500 receiving yards Oliveira piled up on the way to being named the West’s Most Outstanding Player.
“He does a great job of finding the holes,” said Woods of Winnipeg’s battering ram running back. “There’s times when it seems like it’s all covered up and then he bangs off somebody and hits a gap.”
“We know it’s gonna be cold so you know they want to run the ball. So we have to stop the run and not let them have any deep shots.”
Woods knows that you can’t guarantee success against Winnipeg merely by holding their star running back at bay. Indeed, you could argue that Oliveira was not the key to two Winnipeg wins over the Lions in 2023, but rather the passing attack was. The Lions held Oliveira to modest totals of 67 yards in each of the losses, while the Blue Bomber air bombardment threw for 447 yards (in a 50-14 win) and 389 yards (in a 34-26 overtime win). Previously, when the Lions walked into Winnipeg and roughed up the Bombers in a 30-6 victory (Week 3), Oliveira rushed 10 times for 52 yards.
So you could say that the BC run defense is capable of defusing Big Blue’s ground game at least a little. And with Woods leading the charge last Saturday, it certainly appeared the Lions’ run defense regained its form in holding Carey to 75 yards in the Western Semi. Two weeks prior, the Stamps had ripped that defense apart to the tune of 213 yards in a 41-16 win.
Woods gives Ryan Phillips a lot of credit for the improvement, saying that the BC defensive coordinator was clearly determined to have his crew bounce back.
“I could tell that he took it personally,” said Woods. “All the talk goin’ around before the game about us not being able to stop the run. Guys could tell that he wanted us to be flyin’ around and having fun playing free. And I feel like we were doing that.”
“When we can play like that, I think that’s when we win games. I think we hadn’t done that the (previous) time we played Calgary. But we showed back up as ourselves on Saturday.”
Woods is looking forward to whatever challenges the Winnipeg offense designs for him and the Lions and he has enjoyed the ebb and flow of the ever-changing strategies that have been employed in the teams’ three regular season meetings.
“It’s like those heavyweight matchups where you’re literally fighting round for round,” he said. “Seeing what moves they’re gonna make. What counters they’re gonna make. And they’re also reading us.”
“The way we attacked them in the first game, they countered in that second game with some looks that we hadn’t seen before. And we countered again in the third game. And they countered in that second half.”
Looking ahead to the Western Final, Woods has no doubt that whatever tactics the game reveals, it will do so with a physical, bruising personality.
“It’s gonna be one of those games where we need to bring our pads,” he said.
Can he repeat his magnificent performance of last Saturday?
“It was just one of those games where game plans kind of matched up,” said Woods of his remarkable showing against Calgary. “What they were trying to do and what we were doing. And just me trying to flow and just have effort and energy to the ball.”
It’ll be hard to reach double digit tackles again, that’s an unusual occurrence. But Woods isn’t thinking about statistics. He just figures that as well as last Saturday went, he still needs improvement.
“I felt like I left some out there,” he said, hinting that he feels his tackle should have been even higher. “There are certain situations that I want to be better in.”
“I think I can be dialed in and be better,” he said.
If he is, then Josh Woods and Brady Oliveira might have a laugh or two about how often they are meeting on Saturday.