With a third of the season gone, the Ottawa Redblacks boast a 1-4-1 record and have many in the nation’s capital questioning whether the team will be able to mount a legitimate defence of last year’s Grey Cup championship.
Here’s a look at what we’ve learned about the 2017 Redblacks after six games:
1) Trevor Harris is elite*
When Henry Burris retired in the off-season, much was made of Trevor Harris taking over under centre. So far, there’s no denying that stats-wise, there’s been no drop-off whatsoever with #7 leading Ottawa’s offence. As things currently stand, Harris leads the CFL with 1939 passing yards, has a 12 TD to 3 INT ratio and is completing over 70% of his pass attempts.
In addition to getting the job done through the air, Harris has shown a willingness to use his legs when the pocket collapses, both to buy time for receivers to get open and to move the chains with his feet.
Harris’ toughness has also been on full display as he’s taken some absolutely hellacious shots but has always remained in the game and played through pain.
All that said, the reason there’s an asterisk beside the word elite is because so far this season, Harris has shown a tendency to make one or two crucial mistakes a game. At times it’s been bad decisions leading to interceptions or carelessness with the ball. In addition to the three interceptions he’s thrown, Harris has fumbled and lost the ball four times. His mistakes, although rare, are killers. Harris must do a better job protecting the ball to ensure he’s really doing all he can do lead his team to victory.
2) OC Jamie Elizondo must be better
It’s easy to point the finger at a coach and forget that in the end, it’s the players who make their coaches look good/bad. That being said, Elizondo must do a better job of drawing up plays that give his players a higher chance of success. Through six games, the Redblacks are averaging a healthy 6.7 yards per 1st down play. And yet the team is only converting on 2nd down 48% of the time. That’s baffling, plain and simple. Some of that is naturally due to players failing to execute, but some of that is also on the offensive coordinator.
So far this year, Elizondo has called 225 pass attempts to a league high 103 running plays. On paper, it’s a decent balance but given the fact that the Redblacks only average 4.6 yards per carry and 78.5 yards per game on the ground, something’s got to give. Elizondo must either mix up his play-calling (and not always call runs on 1st down), or come up with new blocking schemes to open bigger holes for his running backs.
One area in which Elizondo has excelled is in the red zone. In 17 trips inside their opponent’s 20 yard line, Ottawa’s come away with 11 TDs. That’s a solid conversion rate of 64.7% and will need to continue (or even improve) if the Redblacks want to return into the win column.
3) The offensive line needs help
On any good football team, the offensive line sets the tone. When it’s rolling, the energy and enthusiasm generated by the big men up front is infectious and creates confidence in the entire offensive unit. When it’s not, everyone struggles, and drives aren’t sustained. Unfortunately for the Redblacks, as things currently stand, the latter scenario is often the case.
Despite pass protecting fairly well, Ottawa has given up 13 sacks (2.1 a game) and allowed their star QB to take some serious abuse. After some early season juggling, the Redblacks look to have settled on a unit consisting of SirVincent Rogers, Alex Mateas, Jon Gott, Nolan MacMillan and Jason Lauzon-Séguin. On paper, that’s a strong, experienced group, and yet in practice, something is lacking. Although running the ball more than any other team in the CFL, Ottawa’s offensive line has only paved the way for a single run of more than 20 yards.
While some of the unit’s struggles can be lain at the feet on the players themselves, perhaps keeping extra blockers in on both run and pass plays would help open holes and keep Harris upright. That’s something that offensive line coach Bryan Chiu will need to discuss with Elizondo.
4) The Buds aren’t enough
It’s early in the season, but a few conclusions can already be drawn about Ottawa’s receiving corps. The first is that Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli are some of the best pass catchers in the league, as reflected by their stats. Ellingson leads all players in the CFL with 643 yards and 3 TDs on 39 catches. Sinopoli sits 4th with 440 yards and 3 TDs on 37 receptions. Most impressive is that the Buds have combined for 392 YAC (yards after catch).
As demonstrated above, the Buds have produced when called upon. And Harris has called upon them early and often this year, targeting the Buds 56 (Ellingson) and 50 (Sinopoli) times respectively.
The second fact that can’t be denied about Ottawa’s receiving corps is that the group has (so far) failed to overcome the losses of perennial 1000 yard receivers Ernest Jackson and Chris Williams. With Juron Criner and Kenny Shaw on the six-game injured list, the Redblacks have struggled to find a reliable third receiver.
At times, rookie Joshua Spencer has seemed to be that guy. At other moments, Dionate Spencer has dazzled with his speed. But both have also had drops and gone invisible for long stretches. After his 107 yard performance in Week Two, Spencer hasn’t had more than 47 yards in any game, and had under 30 in his last three.
Harris’ reliance on the Buds to produce is shown by the fact that he targets them nearly twice as much as anyone else. After the Buds, Stangby has 29 targets (good for 18 catches, 218 yards and 2 TDs), Spencer has 27 (good for 16 catches, 238 yards, 1 TD) and rookie Dominique Rhymes has 12.
Whether it happens with the return of Shaw or Criner from injury, or by distributing the ball amongst their current group of receivers more evenly, the Redblacks need to spread the ball out to stop relying so heavily on the Buds and become a more potent (and complete) offensive team.
5) Rookie defenders are coming into their own
After losing so many starting defenders in the off-season, many wondered who would step up for the Redblacks. Obviously it’s early, but so far, a trio of defenders have caught my eye. DL Jake Ceresna’s 9 tackles, 3 knockdowns and a sack have impressed; he plays tough against the run and provides a solid push up the middle on passing downs.
In the secondary, the emergence of Corey Tindal (19 tackles, 2 knockdowns) and Sherrod Baltimore (5 tackles, 2 knockdowns) have led to the release of A.J. Jefferson and proven that yet again, GM Marcel Desjardins has an eye for plucking rookie DBs off the streets. The pair weren’t on the field from Day One but looked to have settled into starting roles in the secondary. As their experience grows, so too will the number of plays they make.
6) Special teams are (mostly) solid
Throughout their short history, the Redblacks have typically struggled in special teams coverage. That isn’t the case this year, as Ottawa is only conceding an average of 9 yards per punt return, and 19 per kickoff. That’s thanks in large part to the stellar coverage provided by Keelan Johnson and Jean-Philippe Bolduc, who have each already made 10 special teams tackles.
But as well as Ottawa has been covering kicks, making them has been a different story. On top of already having three kicks blocked, kicker Brett Maher has gone 12/15 on FG attempts and 7/10 on converts. While those aren’t awful numbers, when you consider the fact the Redblacks’ four losses have come by a combined 10 points, the 12 points lost on missed kicks looms large.
7) Talk is cheap
Following each loss this season, Redblack players have been quick to take to social media to implore R-Nation to stick with them as better results lie ahead . And while no one is doubting their desire or the effort being put forth by said players, in the end, talking the talk means nothing if you fail to actually walk the walk. With a third of the season gone, there’s no more time to figure things out or to be patient. The only thing that matters now is stacking points.
8) Almost isn’t good enough
To listen to some in the nation’s capital, there’s no reason to worry because Redblacks are almost 6-0. They almost won the first game, if not for a bad fumble review. They almost won in Calgary. They almost beat the Eskimos. They almost beat the Argos (twice). Let me remind R-Nation that Abdul Kanneh almost didn’t make that goal line tackle. That Ernest Jackson almost dropped that overtime touchdown. The Redblacks almost weren’t Grey Cup champions. The point is, almost counts for exactly nothing. And don’t point out that Ottawa’s losses are by a total of 10 points, that doesn’t matter. What does count is the number 4 in the loss column.
9) The rest of the season is an uphill battle
While the sky isn’t falling, panic bells should be going off for the Redblacks. At 1-4-1, the team has dug themselves a deep hole and has serious work to do if the want to make the playoffs, let alone try to repeat as champions at home. The reality is that Ottawa needs to go 8-4 over their last 12 games just to break the .500 mark.
And while top spot in the East isn’t completely out of reach, unless the Argos stumble, the Redblacks are in tough. With Toronto winning the season series (and thus holding the tie-breaker) and being 3 points ahead of Ottawa in the standings (with a game in hand), the Redblacks need the Argos to slump. If they don’t, the best Ottawa can hope for is a 2nd place finish and to host the East Semi-Final. It helps the Redblacks’ playoff push that both the Ticats and Alouettes have looked incredibly average and downright awful at times.
The other thing the Redblacks have going for them is that they’ve gotten through the most difficult part of their schedule and should have a number of players capable of making a difference (Connor Williams, Jonathan Newsome, Kenny Shaw, Ron Omara and Nick Taylor) coming off the six-game injury list in the next few weeks.