Ottawa pulls away from the pack (& 12 other thoughts)

The CFL season is an 18 game marathon but with only 3 weeks in the regular season remaining, the sprint to the finish has begun. And by hanging on to beat the Ticats, the Ottawa Redblacks have officially kicked their pursuit of a post-season berth into high gear. While it was by no means a perfect game, the Redblacks did enough to gain two crucial points and put some space between themselves and the rest of the East Division. Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) 16 weeks after tearing the ligament in his pinky finger on his throwing hand, it’s safe to say that Henry Burris is once again completely healthy. Though not everyone in R-Nation agreed with Head Coach Rick Campbell’s decision to start Burris over Trevor Harris, Burris rewarded his coach’s faith and silenced any doubters by playing almost flawless game, going 27/39 (69%) for 393 yards and a TD. In his 5th start of the year, Burris displayed accuracy, velocity and veteran savvy as he spread the ball around, completing passes to 7 different receivers and controlling the tempo of the game. Burris kept cool in the face of Ticat pressure, often making quick decisions and showed a willingness to use his feet, scrambling 8 times for 37 yards. More importantly, every time Burris tucked the ball and took off, it resulted in a first down or a touchdown. In what was likely his last chance to prove he could be an effective starter, Burris rose to the occasion and showed the league that when healthy, he can still play at an MOP level.

2) Much of Burris’ success can be attributed to OC Jamie Elizondo tailoring his play calls to Burris strengths. Burris was rarely asked to take shots deep down the field, instead feasting on 15-25 yard throws, which are his bread and butter. The offence racked up 27 first downs and 478 yards of total offence as Ottawa controlled the ball for nearly 33 minutes. Elizondo struck a good mix with the run to pass ratio, calling 22 runs to 39 pass attempts. The only criticism I have for him was that he still called 6 hitch screens and while the first one resulted in a healthy gain, the rest were effectively wasted plays, resulting in minimal gains. Thankfully, with Burris under centre, more often that not Elizondo had his receivers running down the field, not towards the sidelines.

3) Mossis Madu had an extremely solid night, proving to be a threat both on the ground and in the air. Madu finished the night with 99 total yards (14 carries for 66 yards and 5 catches for 39 yards) and his shiftiness and power were on display throughout the night. Madu’s ability to cut back against the grain and to make a defender miss in the open field led to first downs on plays that had no right to move the chains. A pair of tough rans on the final drive in the 4th quarter helped seal the game and kill the clock. The Redblacks have had a lot of turnover at the RB position this season, but with this performance, perhaps Madu has finally put his stamp on the job.

4) The big question facing the Redblacks as they went into this game was how Chris Williams’ production would be replaced. On this night at least, Ernest Jackson led the way, catching 5 passes for 106 yards and a TD. Jackson went over the 1000 yard mark for the 2nd year in a row as he came up with a number of tough catches over the middle and on 2nd down to keep drives alive. The most impressive stat of the night is that 60 of Jackson’s yards were gained after the catch. Rookie Juron Criner had a monster opening half, hauling in 3 passes for 85 yards and would have had even more if not for an end zone drop. Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson and Khalil Paden finished the night with 63, 58 and 43 yards respectively. Paden also sealed the win with a late 28 yard catch and run. While the loss of Chris Williams and his blistering speed cannot be overstated, the Redblacks seemingly have enough depth to overcome it.

Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris (1) celebrates with Ottawa Redblacks wide receiver Khalil Paden (13) during the first-half of CFL football action against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Friday, October 14, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power
Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris (1) celebrates with Ottawa Redblacks wide receiver Khalil Paden (13) during the first-half of CFL football action against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Friday, October 14, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

5) For just the second time this season, the Ottawa Redblacks were able to start the same five players on the offensive line in back to back weeks. In 39 dropbacks, the offensive line gave Burris plenty of time to make his reads and only conceded two sacks to a dangerous Ticat defensive line. The group also blocked well on the ground, paving the way for 103 total yards. They also continued their season long trend of converting every 2nd/3rd and short (short being less than 2 yards).

6) Defensively, the Redblacks remain a work in progress. The defence yet again failed (for the most part) to pressure Ticat’s pivot Jeremiah Massoli, allowing him to complete 79% of his passes. The lone exception was a play where Arnaud Gascon-Nadon came off the edge and pursued Massoli until he threw a pass across his body and into the arms of a diving Andrew Marshall. It was a heck of a play, unfortunately the offence failed to turn it into points. For a defence that has struggled to generate turnovers, the Redblacks actually came up with three in the first half, the other two being a Jerrell Gavins forced fumble and a beautiful Forrest Hightower interception in the end zone.

7) Speaking of the secondary, while they had flashes of brilliance, I’m looking at you Hightower, Mitchell White and Jonathon Rose, they were still often picked apart, especially in the second half. Part of that is undoubtedly the lack of pressure put on the opposing QB, but a lot it is blown coverages, a prime example being the touchdown pass to John Chiles.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats Junior Collins makes a touchdown catch to put Hamilton ahead of the Ottawa Redblacks for a short spell during the second-half of CFL football action in Hamilton on Friday, October 14, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power
Hamilton Tiger-Cats Junior Collins makes a touchdown catch to put Hamilton ahead of the Ottawa Redblacks for a short spell during the second-half of CFL football action in Hamilton on Friday, October 14, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

8) A week after missing a short overtime kick, Chris Milo had an up week, continuing his roller coaster season. Milo was perfect on the night, hitting all 6 of his kicks (3 FGs and 3 converts). Given his experience and his ability to make big pressure kicks, it doesn’t make sense for the Redblacks to cut Milo, but I’m sure I’m not alone in holding my breath every time he lines up for a kick.

9) Bob Dyce’s special teams units deserve credit for corralling and containing the always dangerous Brandon Banks. As TSN announcers Rod Black and Duane Forde repeatedly pointed out, Banks had not had a long return in quite some time. Though Banks found some space with 27 and 42 yard returns in the 3rd quarter, overall he had a quiet night and didn’t tilt field position in Hamilton’s favour. Antoine Pruneau and Patrick Lavoie deserve praise for a couple of stellar special team tackles.

10) It wouldn’t be a CFL game without a controversial call, right? A week after blowing a fumble call in the Winnipeg/BC game, the Command Centre will once again be a talking point. On a 2nd down play, Greg Ellingson caught the ball, took two steps backwards, then got hit as he fell to the ground. At some point the ball came out but it was hard to tell if it was moving before his butt hit the ground. As it was ruled down by contact, the Ticats challenged the ruling on the field and logically, most people assumed it was 50/50 on him being down by contact or a fumble. Instead, the replay officials in Toronto made the one ruling which left both fanbases irate, deciding it was an incomplete pass. The ruling is flat out wrong, since after making the catch Ellingson has time to secure the ball and take a few steps before getting hit. The other aspect of the replay that the officials either ignored or missed is that Ellingson clearly takes a headshot on the play, so much for an emphasis on player safety eh? It was a big moment in the game, but it was not the reason the Ticats lost, despite what Kent Austin thinks.

11) Who knew the decision to take a knee could be such a controversial one? With 15 seconds left in the game, the Redblacks had the ball on the Ticats’ 1 yard line. Instead of plunging it into the end zone, Rick Campbell elected to have his squad take a knee and run out the clock. TSN commentator Rod Black immediately disagreed with Campbell’s decision, citing the potential need for season series tie breaking points. But the reality is that since the Redblacks have an extra point in the standings (due to their tie with Calgary), the likelihood of them finishing with the same amounts of points as the Ticats is extraordinarily small. Furthermore, if the Redblacks had scored, the Ticats would have gotten the ball back (with around 10 seconds left) and only need a single score to send the game to overtime (a touchdown and 2 point convert). While the seems unlikely, kicking off to Brandon Banks is never a safe play. Not to mention that if they ran a play and someone got hurt or if they had fumbled the ball, fans would’ve jumped all over the coaching staff for not taking a knee. In the end, kneeling down was the most conservative and safest play, as it guaranteed the win. Considering how badly we needed the 2 points, I’m fine with that.

12) The drive back to Ottawa will be a happy one for the 30 or so members of R-Nation who made the trek down the 401 to the Hammer. Led by the Southsiders, a loud contingent of Ottawa faithful were on hand to witness the Redblacks beat their biggest rival.

13) By winning the opening leg of a home and home vs the Ticats, Ottawa put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division. Now 3 points up on Hamilton, no matter what happens next week, the Redblacks will remain in first place and in control of their own fate. The win also moves Ottawa that much closer to a home playoff date, as Argo and Alouette losses automatically means playoff football at TD Place. While nothing is set in stone (not even a playoff spot is locked up yet), the Redblacks have to be feeling good about their odds heading into the final three weeks of the season. Their destiny is in their own hands, which is more than a lot of other teams can say right now.

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).