Burris looks sharp in return (& 15 other thoughts on Ottawa’s loss)

On a night when they needed a win in the worst way, the Ottawa Redblacks came out flat and stayed that way until a mid 4th quarter QB change provided a spark. Despite getting the game to overtime, the Redblacks still found a way to lose, dropping their franchise record to 0-6 vs a Chris Jones coached team. Here are the rest of my thoughts on the game:

– A week after putting up a CFL season high of 485 yards, Trevor Harris only managed to complete 12/21 (57%) of his passes for 120 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. While Harris did miss some throws, the reality is that his teammates didn’t do much to help him, dropping four catchable passes and failing to provide a clean pocket for him to throw from. And while the offence got off to a slow start, I’m not sure how much blame you can pin on Harris. Ottawa’s first six offensive possessions can be summed up as a bad snap, a sack, offensive pass interference on Juron Criner wiping out a massive gain, an Ernest Jackson fumble, two run plays in a row that resulted in a two and out and back to back drops. What Harris does deserve some blame for is a pair of poorly thrown passes in the 3rd quarter that forced receivers Chris Williams and Ernest Jackson to act as DBs. Both were shaken up in their attempts to prevent the interception. It’s also worth mentioning Harris’ willingness to run, something we haven’t seen too much this season. Harris tucked the ball and took off 5 times for 47 yards.

– Ultimately the decision to pull Harris worked out brilliantly, as the offence seemed to come alive under Henry Burris. While his pinky finger might not be fully healed, any doubts about his accuracy and strength were immediately put to rest with his first pass, a bullet to Greg Ellingson for a 15 yard gain. Upon entering the game, Burris led the Redblacks on 3 scoring drives, coming up clutch on 3rd and 10 and in the last minute of the game, when Ottawa needed a touchdown to force overtime. Though he tossed an interception, Burris looked like last season’s MOP as he threw with confidence, accuracy and power while putting up 138 yards and 2 TDs (while rushing for another), in less than a quarter. While he failed to get the win, Burris did more than enough to spark a QB controversy in the nation’s capital.

– On that note, am I ever glad that I’m not Head Coach Rick Campbell. Well you could make the case that Burris’ strong performance earned him the next start, the reality is that Harris wasn’t awful (he just got no help) and he’s only a week removed from throwing for 485 yards. The real worry is that last year, Harris looked like an MOP candidate while replacing Ricky Ray, but once Ray was healthy and breathing down his neck, he regressed and struggled, seemingly afraid to make a mistake that would cost him the starter’s job, which is exactly what wound up happening. If Harris does get the start, will he be gun shy, feeling like he’s on a short leash? On the flip side, after his strong performance, how will Burris react if the coaches hand him the clipboard again? I don’t envy the choice Campbell has to make but if I was in his shoes, I’d probably give Harris the start.

– For 11th time this season, the Redblacks finished the game with more offence than their opponent, which means that OC Jamie Elizondo is doing something right. That being said, for long portions of the game, his play calling was bland and predictable. Of the 16 run plays he called (not counting QB sneaks), 12 were on first down. As documented above, the offence got off to a very slow start but some of that is on Elizondo for failing to call plays that pushed the ball down the field. Once Burris entered the game, the difference was quite apparent, as he wasted no time in throwing darts over the middle, as opposed to the outs, swing passes and screens that had been called earlier in the game. Whether that was Elizondo tailoring his play calling to Burris’ strengths, or the 41 year old vet being given free reign to call his own plays, the reality is, it worked. It worked so well in fact, that the Redblacks put up 22 points in less than 7 minutes. The most frustrating part of last night’s play calling was that after watching Burris march the offence up and down the field to send the game into extra time, it’s like Elizondo got nervous and went into ultra conservative mode, calling three straight runs to straight overtime, basically playing for a FG. When you take into account how poorly the defence had been playing, Elizondo should have put the game on the shoulders of the Hall of Famer who got it to OT and let Burris come out firing.

– Heading into the game, much was made of the return of RB Travon Van. There had been talk of Van splitting reps with Mossis Madu or perhaps putting them both in the backfield at the same time, but in the end Van had 1 carry to Madu’s 15. It’s understandable though as Madu averaged 5 yards per carry and showed great vision with his cuts.

– Greg Ellingson broke the 1000 yard mark for the second time in his career and led all Ottawa receivers with 97 yards and 2 TDs. It’s worth noting that 88 of those yards and both TDs came in the last half of the 4th quarter, when Burris was at QB. No other receiver cracked the 50 yard mark, but Ernest Jackson and Chris Williams finished the night with 46 and 40 yards respectively. Much like last week, drops were an issue for all of Ottawa’s receivers, as everyone minus Jackson added to their season drop total.

– Getting back to Chris Williams, the last thing Ottawa needed was to lose their most dangerous offensive weapon, but that’s exactly what happened. Hurt while landing while trying to break up an interception, the biggest indicator that his injury might be long term (and serious) is that Williams’ knee never appeared to twist or bend, yet he still appeared to be in considerable pain, needed to be helped off the field and was seen icing it before heading to the locker room. The injury bug ravaging the Redblacks this season had, up to this point, avoided the receiving corps, but given the prospect of Williams missing significant time, it’s worth wondering if the recently released Khalil Paden gets a call to return to the town.

Ottawa Redblacks' Chris Williams (80) catches the ball to score a touchdown as he is defended by Saskatchewan Roughriders' Justin Cox (31) during first half CFL action on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ottawa Redblacks’ Chris Williams (80) catches the ball to score a touchdown as he is defended by Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Justin Cox (31) during first half CFL action on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

– A week after conceding a single sack on 45 drop backs, against Saskatchewan, the Redblacks’ offensive line was pushed around and allowed a sack roughly every 9 pass attempts. And it wasn’t just one person struggling either, it was a poor collective effort. Saskatchewan LB Greg Jones blitzed up the middle between Jon Gott and Nolan MacMillan untouched for a sack. On another play, rookie Jason Lauzon-Séguin failed to even get a hand on Willie Jefferson as he swam to the QB for a sack. J’Michael Deane took two drive killing penalties (procedure and holding). And at RT, Jake Silas struggled mightily; even on plays when he didn’t concede a sack, it was often his man responsible for the pressure that flushed the QB out of the pocket or forced an early throw. The one area that the unit excelled at was on the ground, as the offensive line paved the way for a healthy 5.6 yards per carry and had an incredible push in short yardage situations, as the Redblacks easily converted every 2nd or 3rd and 1 they faced.

– On the heels of being shredded on the West Coast by Jonathan Jennings, the Redblacks’ defence put together another poor effort vs Darian Durant. To be fair, they were put in some tough spots. Early on, Saskatchewan had drives that started on Ottawa’s 23 and 12 yard line and both times were forced to settle for FGs. In fact, if not for the defence bending but not breaking, the Redblacks could’ve been down a whole lot more than just 6 after the opening 30 minutes. In 4 trips to the red zone, the GREENWHITES only managed 13 points. At the same time, some of that was luck, as Saskatchewan’s Nic Demski routinely found himself behind coverage and wide open, but dropped 3 passes that would’ve gone for huge gains or touchdowns. For the majority of the night, the defence struggled to put any kind of pressure on Durant, but did bring him down twice, including one spectacular solo effort from rotational DL Ettore Lattanzio that included a forced fumble and recovery.

– For the second game in a row, Ottawa’s secondary did their best Swiss cheese impression. Aside from one excellent pass breakup by Jonathan Rose, Durant has his way with D-Block, picking them apart at will. Abdul Kanneh and Forrest Hightower were frequently beat and caught out of position. And Mitchell White must have been feeling a bit of déjà vu, because despite being in good position, a few times Saskatchewan’s receivers came up with some great catches, just like last week in BC. Watching the GREENWHITES march 105 yards down the field in 7 plays for the go ahead TD late in the 4th quarter was incredibly deflating. Hightower in particular struggled on the drive, being flagged for DPI and giving up a 30 yard gain on 2nd and long. On the TD itself, Antoine Pruneau seemed to be in good position, yet looked back to the wrong side and failed to make a play on the ball.

– Missed tackles were a running theme throughout the night as Saskatchewan piled up 87 YAC (yards after catch). The exceptions to that statement are the linebacking corps, as Damaso Munoz, Taylor Reed and Jerrell Gavins flashed remarkable closing speed and laid thunderous hits when they arrived at the ball.

Saskatchewan Roughriders' Nic Demski (9) is tackled by Ottawa Redblacks' Jerrell Gavins (24) during first half CFL action on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Nic Demski (9) is tackled by Ottawa Redblacks’ Jerrell Gavins (24) during first half CFL action on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

– Nobody on the Redblacks will take this loss harder than Chris Milo. After missing a 46 yard FG attempt before the half, Milo went on to miss a 30 yard chip shot in overtime, effectively ending the game then and there. Milo has now missed 11 FGs on the year along with 2 converts. At this point R-Nation is wondering (not without merit), just how long Milo’s leash is.

– Another kicker who will be feeling some heat is punter Zach Medeiros, who inexplicably dropped a snap while trying to punt it, resulting in a brutal turnover deep in Ottawa’s end. Despite averaging 46 yards per punt, Ottawa lost the field position battle as the Redblacks’ cover units allowed Saskatchewan to gain on average, 13 yards per punt return (with a long of 28), 21 per kickoff return (with a long of 34) and 60 off of a missed FG. Bob Dyce deserves credit for a well executed trick play in which Jamill Smith threw a pass across the field to Chris Williams, who sprinted for a 15 yard gain before being taken down.

– Really gotta wonder what HC Rick Campbell was thinking when he decided to go for it on 3rd and 7 from Saskatchewan’s 52 yard line. It was the end of the 3rd quarter and the Redblacks were only down 19-7. I wasn’t a huge fan of the gamble but if you are going to go for it, why use your third string QB instead of the guy who threw for 485 yards the week before or your Hall of Fame backup QB? It’s not the first time the Redblacks have gambled on 3rd down this season with their 3rd string QB. Who else remembers Danny O’Brien throwing a pass to DT Zack Evans in the end zone earlier this year. Both times Ottawa failed to convert. I don’t mind Campbell’s aggressiveness but if you’re going to gamble on 3rd down, why not do everything you can to set yourself up for success?

– Most teams find playing at home to be an advantage. Doubly so when it’s in front of a loud, sold out crowd. But the Redblacks are clearly not most teams. By losing to the GREENWHITES in front of another full house (24,668 were on hand), Ottawa’s home record falls to a miserable 2-4-1. It’s baffling how the team had play so poorly in front of such an energized fan base.

– The only reason this game wasn’t a must win contest was because Saskatchewan plays in the West. Still, Ottawa wasted yet another prime opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the East. Despite losing, the Redblacks remain in control their own destiny. With a home and home vs the Ticats looming, the East Division winner will be decided in the next two weeks. If the Redblacks can sweep Hamilton, or even earn a split, they’ll do enough to maintain their grip on first place. For that to happen though, they’ll need to start finding ways to win. In 2015, the Redblacks always seemed to do just enough to come up with the tough wins, in 2016, they keep finding new ways to lose. If Ottawa wants any shot at hosting a home playoff game, they’ll need to figure things out in a hurry. With four weeks left in the season, it’s put up or shut up time.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).