On a perfect summer night, the Ottawa Redblacks spoiled Jason Maas return to the Nation’s Capital and earned their first home win of the season by eking out a 23-20 win with a late field goal. Here are my thoughts on the game:
1) After a subpar performance in his first game back from an injured pinky on this throwing hand, 2015’s MOP looked much better vs the Eskimos. While it wasn’t perfect by any means, by going 26/39 (66.6%) for 341 yards and 2 TDs to 1 INT, Henry Burris did much to bounce back and silence his critics both in and outside of Ottawa. Burris looked sharp for the majority of the night, spreading the ball to seven different receivers and averaging 8.7 yards per pass. If not for a couple of drops, his final stat line would read even better. The interception was a poor pass, not because it was picked off, but because it was aimed at the ground. It was simply bad luck that it managed to hit Chris Williams’ foot before popping up. I still have my doubts as to if Burris is completely healthy but he is certainly trending in the right direction.
2) After calling a conservative game last week against the Argos (which netted just 295 yards of offence and 16 first downs), OC Jamie Elizondo deserves credit for adjusting and using a much more vertical attack this week. The Redblacks ran 61 plays for a total of 21 first downs and 390 yards, which works out to 6.4 yards per play. Breaking it down further, Ottawa’s attack was fairly balanced, with 39 pass attempts to 22 runs. By possessing the ball for 30:27, the offence kept the ball out of Mike Reilly’s hands and allowed the defence plenty of time to rest and recover.
3) Canadian RB Kienan LaFrance continues to impress and run hard. Despite only having five carries, LaFrance was called upon to close the game out and picked up a tough first down in the last minute of the game, sealing the win. For most of the season LaFrance has been used primarily as a blocker in passing situations, but as he 5.6 yards per carry demonstrate, when given the chance, he is an extremely effective runner.
4) Heading into the game the Redblacks made a number of roster changes. WR Khalil Paden, DB Nick Taylor, RT Jason Lauzon-Séguin and DT Moton Hopkins all started their first games of the season and each wound up playing a part in the victory. Paden displayed explosive YAC speed, turning two short catches into 53 yards and if not for a timely Eskimo review, would’ve had another 50 yard catch. Taylor, a standout since April’s mini-camp, more than held his own against Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker, two of the league’s top receivers. Same goes for Lauzon-Séguin who got the better of DEs Marcus Howard and Odell Willis, preventing either of them from sacking Burris. Lastly, though Hopkins finished the night with a single tackle, he got good penetration and was a factor in why Edmonton only rushed for 50 yards.
5) Greg Ellingson led all receivers with 6 catches for 121 yards but was held out of the end zone due to two drops late in the game. Thankfully, those drops were erased from memory when Chris Williams scored the game tying touchdown on the ensuing play. Speaking of Williams, after an early drop that led to a conceded safety, he responded nicely by hauling in 7 catches for 62 yards and 1 TD. The other half of Ottawa’s “Fab Four”, Ernest Jackson and Brad Sinopoli, combined for 8 catches, 87 yards and a TD. The Redblacks arguably boast the best receiving corps in the league but one aspect of their game that is often overlooked is their ability to block downfield. Ottawa’s receivers are rarely tackled immediately after making a catch and often rack up impressive YAC (yards after contact). Much of that is due to the willingness of the guys without the ball to engage with defenders.
6) Defensive co-ordinator Mark Nelson’s unit deserves a big round of applause for breaking Mike Reilly’s eight game streak of 300 yard passing games without the services of its best two DBs (Abdul Kanneh and Jerrell Gavins). Nick Taylor, Imoan Claiborne, Forrest Hightower and Mitchell White were simply fantastic, not only in coverage, but in their ability to immediately bring down the ball carrier following a completion. In the season opener, Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker racked up YAC due to missed tackles. This time around, the secondary played much tighter. White in particular deserves an individual shoutout due to a couple of timely knockdowns. When talking about the secondary, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the great job Ottawa’s defensive line did in pressuring Reilly and collapsing the pocket. Led by another beastly effort from Zack Evans, the Redblacks hit Reilly early and often and while he’s not the type to get rattled, Reilly’s mounting frustration was clearly visible after every defensive stop. Hats off to the entire defence for not allowing a single touchdown to one of the league’s most potent offences.
7) After off-field issues bounced him from the NFL, you have to wonder if John Boyett gets another chance down south this off-season. Despite not starting and only being rotated into the game, Boyett once again led the team in tackles (with seven) and always seemed to be around the ball. As the team gets healthy and guys return from injuries, the coaches need to find a way to continue to give Boyett playing time.
8) I feel like a broken record, parroting what many have already said, but the CFL has a serious ref problem and it IS affecting the way fans watch the game. Last night I was with a group of people who don’t always make it out for games and while all thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, by half-time (and the 14 flags thrown in the opening 30 minutes), all anyone was talking about was the referees. Things got no better as the game wore on, because by the end of the night there was a total of 27 penalties for 310 yards, and that’s not even counting the declined penalties. It’s at the point that after every big play, fans hesitate in cheering because they first need to scan the field for orange laundry. While many of the calls were deserved and can be chalked up to sloppy play by both teams, others were baffling ghost calls. The Redblacks took four roughing the passer penalties. Two were deserved (for being high/low hits) and two were farcical. Last time I checked, the CFL is still a contact league, so how Zack Evans hitting Reilly in the chest, with his chest, and Reilly not even falling down is a flag, I have no idea. Another completely blown call was the DPI on Mitchell White which moved the Eskimos 40 yards up from their goal line and saved them from likely conceding a safety. I don’t know what the solution is but I do know that casual fans are being turned off by the flagfest.
Fantastic product. But listen to your customers @CFL. They're not happy about the weekly flag fest.
— AJ Jakubec (@AJonSports) August 7, 2016
9) Last night’s sellout crowd of 24,560 (Ottawa’s third sellout of the year), made for some of the loudest crowd noise in Redblacks’ history. The only comparable for the noise generated on defence in the second half of last night’s game was last year’s East Final. Late in the 4th quarter, with R-Nation already on its feet and roaring, things kicked up to an even higher decibel when Jermaine Robinson proved he actually can catch by picking off Reilly and setting up the go-ahead field goal.
10) Aside from Forrest Hightower being shaken up late in the game while making a tackle, the Redblacks escaped the game without any serious injuries. That’s a massive boon for an already banged up team heading into the bye. The extra week of rest could allow numerous players such as Nolan MacMillan, Brendan Gillanders, Travon Van and Trevor Harris to return to the active roster and bolster the team’s depth.
11) Chris “Money” Milo remains an enigma. A week after nailing a 50 and 55 harder, Milo’s 22 yard field goal attempt sailed wide right and through the end zone (though no rouge was award since officials ruled the ball nicked the upright and declared a dead ball). Milo had a solid night overall, going 3/4, but the inconsistency on short kicks is worrying as the season continues on and each game becomes more significant.
12) Much has been made of R-Nation’s passion and the game day experience that OSEG has created at TD Place. Small things such as allowing fans on the field after the game are a big reason why. Watching the faces of young children light up as they meet and get pictures and autographs with their favourite players is exactly how the next generation of fans for life is spawned. To the best of my knowledge, the Redblacks are unique in allowing fans to take the field. Other teams around the CFL would be smart to copy the model because one of the best aspects of the CFL is how accessible players are.
13) At this point last season the Redblacks’ record was 4-3. Thanks to the win, this year’s team heads into the bye on a positive note and with a 4-2-1 record, good enough for tops in the East. Considering the slew of injuries Ottawa has battled, the longer they can remain in the thick of the things, the better off they’ll be as key players start to return. Just imagine the numbers a fully healthy squad could put up.
14) Lastly, as I was at the game, I didn’t see Burris’ half-time and post-game comments live. But I have to admit, I don’t mind them at all, for a couple of reasons. First off, after last week’s shaky performance in his first game back since tearing ligaments in his pinky finger, Burris took it on the chin from the national media and a number of fans. So good on him for getting fired up and using all that talk to motivate himself and fire up his teammates. Clearly it worked since Burris played with the fire and determination that is to be expected of the reigning MOP. I really don’t care whether the slights Burris feels are real or imaginary, because the reality is that good athletes always find ways to self motivate and to push themselves to be better. The second reason I don’t mind the comments is because its ironic that a panel of experts that make their living by criticizing others seemed to be so rattled and caught off guard by someone, gasp, criticizing them. Finally, I also didn’t mind the comments for the simple reason that certain fans in the CFL seemed to be ruffled by every comment Burris makes. While some may chose to focus only on the beginning of his comments, I think the way Burris ended his rant speaks volumes about where his mind is really at. “ I just had to say something, and I did, but from this point I’m not going to talk about it. I made my point and I’m leaving it at that……….I’m only worried about winning”