It’s not often a game this early in the season can be described as a must win, but that’s exactly what last night’s contest vs Montreal was for the Ottawa Redblacks. In a game they had to have, the Redblacks rose to the occasion, gutting out a win on the back of a gritty defensive performance and timely catches.
Ottawa needed to beat the Alouettes to prove to themselves, the city, their fans and the rest of the league that they were serious about defending their championship. Much like every other game this season, last night’s match was full drama and swung on a couple of key plays, but this time Ottawa came out on the right side of those plays, instead of being left frustrated.
Here are the rest of my thoughts on last night’s win.
1) Another game another 300-plus yard performance from Trevor Harris. Just like he has done all season, Harris avoided costly turnovers, read the field well and spread out the ball to seven different receivers as he passed for 376 yards and 2 touchdowns. It’s well known that rightly or wrongly, QBs get all the credit when their team wins and all the blame when they lose. And before tonight’s win, there were rumblings among some in R-Nation that perhaps Ottawa didn’t have the right guy under centre. But let’s face facts. Any fan questioning Harris’ abilities and play needs to give their head a shake. He’s averaging 351 yards per game, has a 71% completion rate and a 10 TD to 2 INT ratio. That’s elite, plain and simple.
2) Since offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo was hired to replace Jason Maas, R-Nation has gotten used to two things from his offence; stats that look good on paper and questionable play calling (especially when sitting on a lead). Let’s take last night for an example. The Redblacks generated 21 first downs, had 411 yards of total offence and averaged a stellar 8.4 yards per first down play. In theory, that’s a recipe for success and a good way to set yourself up to sustain drives. Yet much like the past few games, Ottawa’s 2nd down conversion rate was just over 50%, as the team converted only 12 of 23 2nd down opportunities. The Redblacks also failed to sustain any kind of drive after the mid-way point of 3rd quarter when they scored their 24th point. From that point on, Ottawa was unable to string together more than a six play drive. As has often been in the case since Elizondo took over play calling duties, at times it felt like the Redblacks were merely content to sit on their lead and bleed the clock. Given the talent Ottawa has at its disposal, the team must remain aggressive when ahead and look to build on leads, not sit on them.
On another note, Elizondo deserves credit for not forcing a ground game that wasn’t working (13 carries turned into 44 yards), but must do a better job of play calling in the red zone (Ottawa went 1/3 on the night) and of making turnovers haunt their opponent. 9 points off 4 turnovers isn’t bad but turning those field goals into touchdowns would really bury the other team.
3) 11 carries for 42 yards and a 3.8 per carry average isn’t what R-Nation’s come to expect out of William Powell. Despite having his longest run of the night go for just 8 yards, Powell still found a way to contribute offensively by catching 6 passes out of the backfield for 50 yards, picking up 43 YAC (yards after catch).
4) As the Buds go, so does Ottawa’s offensive production. It was a big night for them, with Brad Sinopoli making the most catches (9 for 96 yards and a TD) and Greg Ellingson racking up the most yards (turning 6 catches into 149 yards and a TD). Ellingson in particular continues to shine and prove he deserves to mentioned amongst the league’s best. His highlight reel 39 yard catch on 2nd and 9 from Ottawa’s 8 yard line with just over a minute left in the game sealed the win.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) July 20, 2017
5) Beyond the Buds, depth and production from the receiving corps is a concern. Dionate Spencer had another quiet night, hauling in 3 passes for 23 yards. Spencer is a speedster but the Redblacks need him to average more than 7.7 yards per catch. Giving him more deep looks and less swing and screens passes would help. Josh Stangby impressed again, especially on a 36 yard reception in which he nearly outran the entire Montreal defence by running from sideline to sideline.
6) The offensive line did an excellent job of keeping Harris upright and providing a clean pocket for him to step into. But yet again, as good as they were in pass protection, the ground game was non-existent. On top of averaging 3.4 yards per run, Ottawa failed to convert a 2nd and 1 QB sneak. The bottom line is that the Redblacks must be better on the ground and that falls directly on the shoulders of their offensive line. Until the ground game gets better, the team will struggle to improve their 2nd down conversion rate.
7) Defensive coordinator Mark Nelson has to be pleased with the way his defence is trending. Although they still concede too much yardage (especially in the air), as a group, the unit is developing a tough, opportunistic playing style. The Redblacks generated 5 turnovers (2 interceptions, 2 fumbles and a turnover on downs), 1 sack, 8 QB pressures and would’ve had a defensive TD if not for an early (and incorrect) whistle. DB Imoan Claiborne and LB Taylor Reed combined for 13 tackles and were seemingly always around the ball. Other defenders worth mentioning are Corey Tindal (who continued to show why AJ Jefferson was deemed expendable) and Serderius Bryant (who made 5 tackles and forced a fumble in his 1st career start).
8) What a difference a year makes. In his last start at SAM LB (which came last year against these same Alouettes) Antoine Pruneau’s play led to him being benched and later moved to safety. Last night, after being slid back to LB due to an injury to Nick Taylor, Pruneau played a whale of game, making 6 tackles and coming up with a diving end zone interception that led to a 14 point swing when Greg Ellingson hauled in an 80 yard TD pass on the following play. Pruneau is an original Redblack and a fan favourite, and performances like last night are why.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) July 20, 2017
9) In his 1st game back in the nation’s capital since playing the overtime hero in the Grey Cup, Ernest Jackson had 101 receiving yards and a handful of spectacular catches. Speaking of former Ottawa players, it’s incredible to see LB Kyries Hebert still making plays. The last former Renegade in the CFL, the 36 year old vet remains a force, as demonstrated by his game high 8 tackles.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) July 20, 2017
10) 3/3 in FGs, 2/2 in converts, and a 48 yard punting average. That’s the kind of production the Redblacks thought they were buying when they gave Brett Maher a reported $25,000 signing bonus. Given his recent struggles, it was good to see him bounce back with a consistent performance. It also might have helped secure his position with the team, as kickers like Swayze Waters remain on the market.
11) There’s not many cities where a team could be winless four games into the season and still sell out a midweek game for their 16th straight sell-out. To the 24,756 members of R-Nation who showed up Wednesday night to create the rowdy atmosphere that TD Place is known for, well done.
12) Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding the team’s poor start, Ottawa did themselves a huge favour by beating a divisional opponent and moving to 1-3-1 on year. In the midst of a vicious 3 games in 11 days (and 4 in 17), the Redblacks sorely needed a win. Just as importantly, they appear to have come out of the game injury free. That’s huge given the short turnaround before Monday night’s tilt vs the Argos in Toronto. If they can manage a win at BMO Field (a place they’ve never lost), all the chatter about their poor start evaporates, as they’d sit atop the East.