Redblacks implode in season ending loss (& 13 other thoughts)

After a season of wild comebacks, tight games and explosive football, the Ottawa Redblacks laid an egg when it counted most.

While Sunday’s East Semi-Final loss wasn’t a beatdown (even if the 31-20 final score is flattering), Saskatchewan left no doubt about who the better team on the field was.

With the loss, the Redblacks’ wildly entertaining 2017 season comes to an abrupt end.

Here are all my thoughts on the defeat:

1) After spending a week insisting that his lack of playoff experience didn’t matter, QB Trevor Harris went out and had his worst game of the season. It’s odd to write that about a QB who threw for 457 yards and two touchdowns in a playoff game, but the fact of the matter is, most of Harris’ stats came when the game was out of reach. There’s no sugarcoating that he played poorly.

Although Harris attempted a CFL record 60 passes, he completed just 61% of those attempts. Harris was also responsible for two interceptions; the first a complete momentum killer, coming as a result of a late, misplaced pass deep in the red zone. The other came on an ugly third down jump ball in the 4th quarter. Frankly, the Redblacks were fortunate Harris only turned the ball over twice, because Saskatchewan failed to hang on to three other passes that were ripe for the taking.

For whatever reason, Harris didn’t seem to be on the same page as his receivers, repeatedly overthrowing open guys. His receiving corps did him no favours either, with four different players dropping catchable balls. Losing his favourite target (Greg Ellingson), also shouldn’t be overlooked.

With all that said, 2017 was supposed to be the year Harris fully came into his own. After six seasons in the CFL, it was to be the year when he finally made a name for himself as an undisputed starter, silencing his doubters. No longer was he in the shadows of future Hall of Famers Ricky Ray and Henry Burris. But fair or not, despite his stellar regular season, R-Nation will remember that in the playoffs, with all the chips on the table, Harris came up short. While this loss shouldn’t influence GM Marcel Desjardins’ decision to re-sign him, it may cause some hesitation given the other pivots (Franklin, Bridge, Collaros, Masoli, Lulay) set to hit the market.

2) Sometimes when a team struggles to perform offensively, it’s unfair to point the finger at the offensive coordinator. After all, he’s not out on the field executing, he just calls the plays. But if an offensive coordinator fails to properly utilize the abilities of the players at his disposal, then that criticism is more than justified. Such is the case with Redblacks’ offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo.

After coming out of the gate firing, scoring eight points on Ottawa’s opening drive (a touchdown and two point convert), the Redblacks failed to find the end zone again until late in the 4th quarter. Undoubtedly, losing Greg Ellingson to a knee injury threw a major wrench in Elizondo’s game plan. But that doesn’t account for the fact that Elizondo chose to hand off the ball to William Powell just eight times. Powell, who finished second in the CFL in rushing despite playing just 12 games, was averaging 120 yards per game heading into the playoffs. For whatever reason, Elizondo saw fit to run the ball 8 times in a playoff game while calling 60 passes. That’s hardly a recipe for success for November football.

Furthermore, after being one of the best teams in the regular season in the red zone (scoring a touchdown 65% of the time), Ottawa’s offence went 1/4 vs Saskatchewan. The Redblacks also went 10/27 on 2nd down, converting just 37% of the time. While the final stats look gaudy (500 yards of total offence, 25 first downs), the reality is that Elizondo’s group didn’t move the chains with any consistency until the game was out of reach.

3) Not feeding Powell the ball might have been justified if he wasn’t finding room to run, however the shifty back averaged 6.3 yards per touch. Just like he’s done all season long, Powell was a threat both on the ground and as a receiver coming out of the backfield, catching 5 passes for 27 yards.

4) For the second game in a row, Diontae Spencer looked like an absolute game breaker every time the ball touched his hands. Spencer finished the game with 9 catches for 157 yards and 135 return yards. Despite another game with huge numbers, Spencer will rue what could have been. In addition to an end zone drop, Spencer was overthrown after getting behind everyone on defence.

5) As for the rest of the receiving corps, kudos to Greg Ellingson for clearly playing injured. Ellingson, who injured his knee on a non-contact play, gutted out 4 catches for 52 yards before retiring to the sidelines. In his absence Juron Criner had a game high 18 targets, but only managed 11 catches (for 102 yards and a touchdown). Both Ellingson and Criner were guilty of deep drops, coming on passes that hit them in the hands when they were already past the last defender. Outside of Spencer, Ellingson and Criner, no other receiver caught more than two passes.

6) Heading into the game, much was made of Rick Campbell’s decision to flip Jon Gott and Alex Mateas on the offensive line. Mateas, who was named an All-Star for his play at centre, was moved back to guard, where he struggled early in the year. Many questioned the logic of moving Mateas out of a role in which he excelled at for Gott, who is more than capable of playing both positions at a high level. SirVincent Rogers also returned to the lineup but that didn’t seem to help much, as Harris was under siege all game long; sacked twice and pressured 10 times. Hindsight is 20/20 but looking back, I wonder if Campbell still tinkers with an offensive line that was playing so well to end the regular season.

7) From the game’s opening drive, you kind of had the feeling it might be a long day for Mark Nelson’s defence. Ottawa couldn’t stop the run (conceding an average of 7.9 yards per carry) or the pass (conceding 9 yards per completion). Any way you slice it, the numbers aren’t pretty. Saskatchewan averaged 9.4 yards per first down play, racked up 212 yards on the ground, 252 in the air, 23 first downs and had a second down conversion rate of 55%. Not only did Ottawa fail to contain any aspect of Saskatchewan’s attack, they were also unable to force a turnover. Most damningly, the Redblacks failed to sack Glenn, rarely even pressuring him. Ottawa seldom blitzed and when they did, they were burned. LB Kevin Brown led the way with 8 defensive tackles but too often, poor angles and sloppy tackling led to massive Saskatchewan gains.

8) In terms of special teams, Ottawa’s units were solid, if unspectacular. Spencer broke a few big returns early, but was later bottled up by excellent downfield coverage. Brett Maher made both field goal attempts, but shanked a late convert and butchered an onside kick attempt. Shoutout to Keelan Johnson and Serderius Bryant for doing their part to flip momentum in Ottawa’s favour. Their turnover set up the offence inside of the red zone.

9) Injuries are never an excuse, but it’s fair to wonder what may have been if Greg Ellingson, Jake Ceresna and Jake Harty don’t leave the game hurt. Those were three starters Ottawa could ill afford to lose, already without the likes of stalwarts such as Brad Sinopoli and Jerrell Gavins.

10) It’s common knowledge that most football games hinge on a of handful of key plays. On Sunday, Ottawa came out on the losing end of every pivotal play. Whether it was Harris being picked inside the red zone, failing to connect with Ellingson and Spencer when they were behind the defence, Ryan Lindley fumbling on a QB sneak, Marcus Thigpen rumbling (untouched) for a 75 yard touchdown run or coming out on the wrong end of a questionable ball spot on 3rd and 1 in the third quarter, the Redblacks did themselves no favours.

11) As has been the case far too often, another sell out crowd left TD Place disappointed. With the loss, Ottawa’s dream of repeating as Grey Cup champions on home turf ends in bitter disappointment. Still, R-Nation should look at the bigger picture before hanging their head in shame. Four seasons in, their franchise has won the division twice, made the playoffs three times, played in two Grey Cups and ended a 40 year championship drought. Not a bad four year span by any standard.

12) GM Marcel Desjardins has an interesting off-season ahead of him. As per our man Justin Dunk, players such as Trevor Harris, William Powell, Diontae Spencer, Brad Sinopoli, Alex Mateas and Taylor Reed are all pending free agents. Given their high level of play and Desjardins’ propensity to stay within set budget limits for positional groups, once again, R-Nation could see significant roster turnover.

13) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Redblacks’ early touchdown celebration. It seems like every week players on both sides of the border come up with new, creative celebrations, but this one tops them all. It’s easily the best celebration in recent memory.

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).