Who are the 2017 Redblacks? Halfway through the season, nobody really knows.
Are they a team accurately reflected by their 2-6-1 record? Or are they one that’s caught very few breaks (losing six single score games) and on the verge of stringing together victories?
Given that the defending Grey Cup champs sit 3rd in the East division, should R-Nation be panicking? Or should Ottawa’s loyal fans take solace in the fact that they’re only three points out of first and still play Hamilton, Montreal and Saskatchewan two times apiece?
What is one to make of an enigma of a team that averages 27.9 points per game yet that concedes 27.4? One that’s scored 251 points vs 247 given up, yet that only has a pair of wins to show for their efforts?
While it may be too early to judge the team as a whole, let’s take a look at and grade how each positional group has performed to date.
Trevor Harris: 247/349 (70.8%) for 2862 yards, 18 TDs and 4 INTs
Quite frankly, the longer you stare at Harris’ numbers, the more difficult it becomes to comprehend Ottawa’s poor record. Put another way, if the Redblacks were even .500, his name is likely at the forefront of the MOP conversation. He’s thrown for the most touchdowns while being intercepted the least. He’s had five 300 yard games and averages 8.2 yards per pass. And yet, as well as Harris has played, there’s room for improvement. Though he hasn’t been throwing to defenders, Harris has struggled to hold onto the ball when sacked. His six fumbles have resulted in four turnovers. Furthermore, Harris is only completing 49.5% of his passes on 2nd down and when it comes to stretching the field, has only gone 20/45 (44%) on passes of more than 20 yards.
Running backs: C-
William Powell: 64 carries for 304 yards (4.8 per carry), 2 TDs and 2 fumbles
Mossis Madu: 35 carries for 157 yards (4.5 per carry) and 1 TD
Brendan Gillanders: 19 carries for 123 yards (6.5 per carry) and 1 fumble
It’s fair to say that Ottawa’s ground game has been at best, underwhelming. Hopes were high that after missing 2016 with a torn achilles, Powell would return to the dominant form he flashed in late 2015, but that hasn’t been the case. Obviously, some of that is on his offensive line, which has struggled to open holes for anyone carrying the ball. Still, Powell’s season high of 85 yards on the ground is hardly inspiring, and in his six starts he’s averaging only 50.8 yards per game. When Powell’s been too banged up to play, Madu has stepped in, with similar results, averaging 52 yards in his three starts. The outlier of the group is Gillanders, who averages nearly 2 yards more per carry, although he hasn’t started and has never logged more than 12 carries in a game.
Greg Ellingson: 58 catches for 904 yards and 6 TDs
Brad Sinopoli: 60 catches for 667 yards and 3 TDs
Dionate Spencer: 27 catches for 357 yards and 2 TDs
Joshua Stangby: 25 catches for 315 yards and 3 TDs
Patrick Lavoie: 14 catches for 97 yards
After riding the CFL’s deepest receiving corps to back to back Grey Cup appearances, 2017 has been an interesting case study in what happens when you overly rely on two (albeit two All-Star) receivers to carry the load. Ellingson and Sinopoli have turned their 160 targets (81 for the former, 79 for the latter) into 118 catches, 1571 yards and 9 TDs. As for the rest of the 13 players who’ve caught a pass this season? They have a combined 189 targets. Outside of the Buds, there’s a clear drop-off in targets and production. Spencer, who was touted as a Chris Williams type speedster, has eclipsed the 50 yard receiving mark just twice. Stangby’s put together a solid sophomore campaign but he and Spencer have a combined 7 catches on 2nd down. To put that into context, the Buds have made 47 of Ottawa’s 81 2nd down catches. The reason FB/TE Lavoie is lumped in with the receivers is because he’s the only non-running back on the team with more than 10 catches. Perhaps the return of Kenny Shaw from injury provides another outlet for Harris that will in turn, take some of the pressure (and coverage) off of the Buds.
Offensive line: D
The offensive line’s regression from the high level of play displayed the past two seasons is a key reason why the Redblacks’ offence as a whole has struggled to maintain drives and convert on 2nd down. Ottawa is moving the chains on just 2nd down only 49% of the time. The veteran unit has struggled to open holes on the ground, as evidenced by the fact that the Redblacks average 76.9 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. When it comes to protecting the passer, things are even worse. It’s football 101 that your QB can’t complete a pass if he’s running for his life or flat on his back. In the 349 times Harris has dropped back to pass, he’s been sacked 22 times and pressured another 50. That means he’s under siege every 4.8 drop backs. While some of that is on Harris for his tendency to hold onto the ball too long at times, Jon Gott and company must be better. Frankly, it’s a miracle Harris has put up the numbers he has while avoiding serious injury. One area in which the offensive line has flexed it’s muscles is short yardage, converting 13/15 times on 3rd and short.
Defensive line: B-
Zack Evans: 16 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 knockdown
Jake Ceresna: 14 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 knockdown
Avery Ellis: 13 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 knockdowns
Arnaud Gascon-Nadon: 5 tackles, 2 sacks
Compared to the rest of the league, Ottawa’s defensive line performance has been slightly above average. They’re 4th against the run, giving up 80.4 yards per game but have struggled all year to bring down opposing QBs, ranking 7th in the CFL with just 15 sacks. That said, the Redblacks lead the CFL in QB pressures with 67, so it’s not like they’re being completely manhandled at the line. Gascon-Nadon is a prime example of this close but no cigar luck. Although he’s only registered a pair of sacks, he ranks among league leaders in QB pressures with 14. Behind the regular starters, Ettore Lattanzio has been productive in spot duty, compiling 11 tackles, 5 QB pressures and recovering a fumble. A healthy Jonathan Newsome would provide a massive boost to the pass rush.
Taylor Reed: 45 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble
Khalil Bass: 29 tackles, 1 sack
Nick Taylor: 23 tackles
Serderius Bryant: 22 tackles, 1 forced fumble
Led by the ferocious “Tank” Reed, Ottawa’s LB corps has been solid, if unspectacular. Reed, who commands the defence from his middle linebacker position, is 6th in the CFL in tackles. Bass, a prized free agent signing, has been good but not the game changing force many expected him to be when he signed with the Redblacks. In fact, he’s often split reps with Bryant, who’s worked his way into the lineup on a rotational basis with Bass. The bigger issue with the corps as a whole is the lack of turnovers forced. No linebacker has an interception and two fumbles through nine games isn’t much to write home about. In a defence that gives up 398.6 yards per game (second worst in the CFL), defensive coordinator Mark Nelson needs more impact plays from his linebackers.
Defensive backs: D-
Antoine Pruneau: 33 tackles, 1 sack, 4 knockdowns and 2 INTs
Jonathan Rose: 30 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 7 knockdowns
Corey Tindal: 26 tackles, 4 knockdowns
Jerrell Gavins: 25 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 4 knockdowns, 1 INT
Sherrod Baltimore: 19 tackles, 2 knockdowns
Oh how #DBlock has fallen. Given the incredible turnover in the secondary during the off-season, it’s not shocking that this year’s group has taken time to gel and come together. But what no one imagined was two starters failing to pan out and being released (AJ Jefferson, Imoan Claiborne) and others (such as Rose) being benched. Still, the emergence of Tindal and Baltimore (two promising rookies) and the steady presence of Pruneau, has anchored the unit. The one constant in face of all the turnover (and perhaps as a result of it) is that no matter who’s been on the field, opposing teams have torched the Redblacks’ secondary. Numbers don’t lie and in this case, they’re ugly. Opponents are completing 67.7% of their pass attempts for 8.2 yards per completion. Ottawa gives up 332.7 passing yards per game (8th in the CFL) and only has 4 interceptions to its credit. Lastly, the secondary been burned 17 times for gains of more than 30 yards. Yikes.
Brett Maher: 22/25 FGs and 11/16 converts
Brett Maher: 61 punts for 2787 yards (45.7 per kick)
Much like his QB, Maher is having an excellent season, though there’s no ignoring a few small blemishes. While he hasn’t missed a field goal for a few weeks, the kicks Maher missed early on directly factored into close losses. At the same time, Maher’s punting has been lights out, minus the handful of crucial 4th quarter punts that he’s shanked. The hang time he’s able to achieve on his kicks has allowed coverage units ample time to get downfield and limit big returns. For the most part, R-Nation should feel confident that the kicking game is in strong hands…er, feet.