Redblacks put concerns to rest (& 10 other thoughts on the win)

Seven months (221 days if you want to get specific) after having their season ended by Saskatchewan, the Ottawa Redblacks opened their 2018 campaign with a small measure of revenge, throttling the visitors in green and white 40-17.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) For about a quarter and a half, quarterback Trevor Harris looked like a guy who hadn’t played much in the pre-season and was struggling to knock off the rust. A handful of bad throws (including a terrible pass that resulted in a pick six), were quickly forgotten as Harris connected on deep strike after deep strike with receivers running in stride. He finished the night by completing 72 per cent of his passes, going 26-for-36 for 345 yards, two touchdowns and the aforementioned interception. At one point he even completed thirteen straight passes.

More importantly, Harris’ knee looked fine. Whether it was moving around the pocket to avoid pressure or scrambling for a first down, the pre-season injury that caused so much angst in the nation’s capital looks firmly to be in the rearview mirror. That bodes well for R-Nation and poorly for defences around the league.

2) You can’t applaud Harris’ performance without acknowledging the excellent job Jamie Elizondo did calling the plays. Heading into the game, much of the talk was centred around how Ottawa’s offence would deal with an aggressive Saskatchewan front seven that dominated the defending Grey Cup champions in Week 1. To offset that pressure, Elizondo kept the defence off-balance. A ratio of 25 runs to 36 passes set up effective play action passes. Elizondo also moved the pocket, rolling his quarterback out and dialled up screens, a shovel pass and other misdirection plays.

The Redblacks’ offence put up 459 yards of total offence, averaged a superb 7.5 yards per first down play and moved the chains 25 times while controlling the clock for over 32 minutes. They were also 3-for-3 on two-point conversions. The only blemish (if you want to nitpick) was going 2-for-4 in the red zone.

3) After rushing for 771 yards in the final seven games of the 2017 season, William Powell picked up right where he left off vs Saskatchewan. Powell was a dual threat; racking up 94 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries and making two catches for 24 yards and a touchdown. He was also essential in picking up the blitz and helping to keep Harris upright.

4) Speaking of keeping Harris upright, kudos to the zero sacks conceded by Ottawa’s shuffled offensive line. 2018 first round pick Mark Korte got his first taste of CFL action at left guard and acquitted himself well. The guy who normally plays that spot, 2017 first round pick Evan Johnson, spent the game out of position at right tackle and again, held his own against some of the best pass rushers in the league. In addition to getting things done in pass protection, the offensive line manhandled Saskatchewan’s front seven in the ground game, paving the way for 114 rushing yards.

5) The big three in Ottawa’s receiving corps performed as expected. Greg Ellingson caught eight balls for 104 yards, Brad Sinopoli hauled in six for 74 and Diontae Spencer six for 82 yards and a touchdown. The real question heading into this season wasn’t if the trio would continue to put up gaudy numbers but rather who would be the fourth receiver to emerge as a reliable outlet. Although three targets only resulted in a single grab, Noel Thomas made his case with a spectacular diving catch.

6) While it was no Ali vs Joe Louis bout, it was certainly entertaining to watch Duron Carter go back and forth with receivers like Spencer and Ellingson. Despite getting the early upper hand with an athletic pick six, Carter’s night at defensive back will ultimately be remembered for blowing coverage on Spencer’s deep touchdown and a pair of flags (defensive pass interference and illegal contact) that extended another touchdown drive.

Even if he didn’t cash all the cheques his mouth wrote, count me among those who truly enjoy what Carter brings to the table. He’s got a whale of a personality and always seems to add an extra storyline to each game he plays. Furthermore, the banter he creates is good for the league and drives fan interest and engagement.

7) The signing of the off-season might turn out to be not a player but a coach. Defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe’s arrival in the nation’s capital was widely seen as necessary to overhaul a toothless defence. In 2017, the Redblacks allowed opponents a CFL high 6.9 yards per first down play, generated a league low 22 turnovers and had just 31 sacks. If last night was any indication, things will be much different in 2018.

Led by Kyries Hebert’s six tackles, Thorpe’s defence held Saskatchewan to 4.8 yards per first down play, generated three sacks, three interceptions (including two in the end zone), a touchdown, a fumble, forced four two and outs and knocked down six passes.

Excluding Hebert, nine other players had three or more tackles on defence. Scratching defensive end Jonathan Newsome raised some eyebrows, but given the play of Avery Ellis (two sacks, three tackles, a forced fumble and constant pressure off the edge), the coach’s decision clearly paid off. Another name that deserves mention is Mike Wakefield, who played a heck of a game from the defensive tackle position.

8) In terms of special teams, Bob Dyce’s units had a decent night. Rookie kicker Lewis Ward went 3-of-4 on field goal attempts, making kicks from 26, 23 and 44 yards out but pushing a 48-yard attempt wide. Richie Leone averaged 40 yards per punt and 65.7 yards per kickoff.

Ottawa was caught napping went Saskatchewan faked a punt and moved the chains in the third quarter, but a Rico Murray end zone interception bailed them out.

Shoutout to special teams demon of the night defensive lineman Andrew Marshall, who led all players with three special teams tackles. The big man showed big hustle.

9) Really enjoyed TSN’s broadcast last night. Rod Smith and Duane Ford make an excellent duo in the booth. As for Kate Beirness in studio, she clearly has chemistry with other panel members.

10) So much for bye week rust eh? With the win, Rick Campbell improves his lifetime record against Chris Jones to 2-9. More importantly, the Redblacks served notice to the rest of the league that they won’t be pushed around. It only counts for two points in the standings but Ottawa’s win put to rest a number of concerns swirling around the team; Harris’ knee looks fine, the defence has teeth and their rookie kicker is the real deal.

As much as this was a statement game, a win next week in Calgary would go a lot further towards building credibility. The Redblacks have never won at McMahon Stadium and to find the last Ottawa CFL team to leave Calgary victorious you need to go all the way back to September 17th, 2004, when the Renegades eked out a 26-24 win.

Must Read