Ottawa’s depth outplays Edmonton’s stars (and 12 other thoughts)

While it won’t top the drama of Greg Ellingson’s incredible catch on 2nd & 25 in last year’s East Final, Kienan LaFrance’s 20 yard romp through the snow to the end zone with less than a minute left in the game won’t fade from R-Nation’s memory any time soon. By beating the crossover Edmonton Eskimos 35-23, the Ottawa Redblacks got a small measure of revenge for last year’s championship loss and are headed to the Grey Cup for the second consecutive year. Here are the rest of my thoughts on the win:

1) Although the stats from Henry Burris’ 16th playoff game won’t blow anyone away (15/26 for 246 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT), the fact of the matter is that he made every throw he needed to. Burris hit 6 different receivers as he spread the ball around and controlled the pace of the game with short to intermediate throws. Burris’ quick reads and ability to move around the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield helped him pick apart an Eskimo defence that largely failed to pressure him. On Ottawa’s final drive, when the pressure was at its highest, Burris converted two 2nd and longs with sharp throws to Juron Criner and Ernest Jackson. Considering how his season has gone, from the injuries to the speculation that Father Time had caught up with him, nobody on the Redblacks is savouring his win more than Burris.

Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris (1) looks on during second half CFL East Division Final action against the Edmonton Eskimos, in Ottawa on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris (1) looks on during second half CFL East Division Final action against the Edmonton Eskimos, in Ottawa on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

2) For most teams, losing their starting running back on the third play of a playoff game would be a death knell for their season. Luckily for home crowd, a season full of devastating injuries to key players has fostered a next man up mentality among the Redblacks. Which is why when Mossis Madu went down, Canadian Kienan LaFrance stepped in and the offence didn’t miss a beat. LaFrance, who had shown flashes in his 37 regular season carries, wound up being the star of the game, gaining 157 yard earned yards on 25 carries. LaFrance averaged 6.3 yards per carry as he plowed through the snow and the Eskimo defence. Even if Madu is healthy next week, LaFrance might have done enough to have earned the right to start for Ottawa in the Grey Cup.

3) As much as LaFrance ran well, much of his production can be attributed to the way Jon Gott and company manhandled the Eskimo front seven. Ottawa’s offensive line dominated, both in run blocking and in pass protection. LaFrance repeatedly found large holes to run through and in his 26 drop backs, Burris was only sacked once. While a fumbled exchange between Gott and Burris led directly to points against, the mishap was the one of the few negatives from the offensive line on the day.

4) Hands up if you had Juron Criner finishing the game as the Redblacks’ leading receiver. Nobody? Didn’t think so. On a day when the weather dictated a run oriented game plan, Criner found a way to come up big, finishing the game with 4 catches for 88 yards. With the Eskimos’ defence focused on shutting down Ottawa’s 1000 yard receivers (Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli combined for 3 catches, 41 yards, a TD and a snow angel), Criner and to a lesser extent Khalil Paden (1 catch for 24 yards and a TD), made the most of the extra space they found. The Eastern MOP, Ernest Jackson, was his usual reliable self, snagging 4 catches for 71 yards including a 9 yard completion that moved the sticks on the Redblacks go-ahead scoring drive.

5) A week after tearing through the Ticats defence for 160 yards, Edmonton running back John White has held to just 66 yards on 12 carries. Ottawa’s defence did a masterful job bottling him up and limiting yards after contact by wrapping up and tackling well. Connor Williams was especially disruptive, leading the defensive line with 4 tackles and a sack. Though he was only credited with a single tackle, newcomer Cleyon Laing did a good job of occupying space and creating gaps for teammates to rush through. Despite only managing a single sack, Ottawa’s defence did a stellar job of containing the elusive Mike Reilly, who failed to rush for a single yard.

6) As well as the front seven played, the real stars of Ottawa’s defensive effort were the secondary. Led by Abdul Kanneh and Mitchell White, the Redblacks DBs effectively limited the damage from the most dangerous 1/2 WR punch in the CFL. Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker finished the night with 70 and 96 yards respectively but never managed to take over and control the game as many expected they would. While Kanneh was burned for a 55 yard TD pass, the play was an anomaly on a night that the Redblacks secondary played their men tight and with confidence. White, Jonathan Rose, Jerrell Gavins and Forrest Hightower all knocked down passes but the break up of the night has to go to LB Serderius Bryant for his diving effort along the sideline

7) It’s not often the a team thoroughly loses the turnover battle (3-0) and still comes out victorious. While Burris 2nd quarter interception didn’t turn into any points against, two 4th quarter fumbles in the span of 4 minutes turned out to be the foothold the Eskimos needed to climb back into the game.

8) After failing to get anything going in the 3rd quarter, Tristan Jackson’s 76 yard punt return was exactly the spark needed to get the Redblacks going again. His electrifying return through the teeth of Edmonton’s cover unit brought the crowd to its feet and gave the Redblacks a commanding 25-3 lead.

9) Speaking of special teams, no Chris Milo turned out to be no problem, as Ray Early filled in admirably, nailing both of his FG attempts. Though he missed a convert attempt, the Redblacks have to be pleased that in inclement weather, their rookie kicker was clutch. It’s also worth mentioning that Tanner Doll’s long snapping was top notch.

10) It’s an area that often gets overlooked, but shoutout to Andrew Marshall, Keelan Johnson and Jake Harty, all of whom finished the game with 2 special teams tackles. Harty’s 4th quarter tackle on Brandon Zylstra not only flipped field position by pinning the Eskimos on their 3 yard line, but it also lead to a FG after Edmonton punter Grant Shaw shanked a punt 16 yards on the ensuing 3rd down.

11) Much like it has all season long, the injury bug struck the Redblacks yet again, this time victimizing Mossis Madu and Patrick Lavoie. While the running back position seems secure with LaFrance and/or Travon Van filling it, losing Lavoie, their special teams captain, is a huge blow. If he can’t go for the Grey Cup, Ottawa loses not only someone who contributes to every special teams unit, but also a key part of its blocking game and a passing threat out of the backfield.

12) Despite the heavy snow and cold temperatures, R-Nation sold out TD Place for the 12th straight time. The nasty conditions were no deterrent to the spirited 24,248 fans on hand who were loud and rowdy all game long, wildly ringing the 20,000 cowbells given out by the team every time the Eskimo offence took the field. To say a home win has been a long time coming isn’t an exaggeration, the win was only Ottawa’s second at TD Place since they beat these same Eskimos back on August 6th, 106 days ago. Maybe the log cutters and wood cookies really do make a difference vs Edmonton.

13) By punching their Grey Cup ticket, the Redblacks have a chance to atone for last year’s loss. Though the matchup vs the powerhouse Calgary Stampeders is a daunting one, the Redblacks shouldn’t be feeling hopeless. After all, they took the Stamps to overtime in July and hung with them for three quarters in September. And while there’s always pressure in a championship game, with Calgary so heavily favoured, look for the Redblacks to be relaxed as they fully embrace the underdog role. This Grey Cup matchup provides a ton of storylines, from Burris his facing his former team, to Rick Campbell’s connections to the Stamps, to Taylor Reed having the chance to stick it to the team who released him earlier this year and so on. One thing that might fly under the media spotlight but worth keeping in mind is that with so many potential free agents, this is likely the last opportunity for this group of Redblacks to win a ring.

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).