Rick Campbell’s late-game gaffe and 12 other thoughts from the Redblacks loss

Following an impressive road win in Winnipeg and coming off a bye week, you’d be forgiven if you assumed Ottawa would be ready to take on a last placed Montreal team. Instead, the Redblacks came out flat as the Prairies and laid a dud in front of 25,132 home fans, losing 21-11 to the Alouettes. The loss marks Ottawa’s fourth defeat in their last five games when coming off a bye.

Here are my thoughts on the game:

1) Averaging 409 passing yards over his last three games and leading the league in completion percentage (69.6%), Harris came into his 52nd career start expecting to pick up where he left off before the bye. Instead, Harris completed 54 per cent of his passes against the Alouettes, going 25 of 46 for 270 yards and an interception.

To be fair, he didn’t get much help; his receivers had a number of drops and his offensive line was manhandled. Too often, Harris had no time to go through his reads, but even when he had a clean pocket, Harris repeatedly overshot or underthrew his targets. While Harris has a number of strengths, mobility and throwing on the run are not among them. Under heavy pressure, Harris repeatedly failed to keep drives alive. He’ll have to come up with some way to adjust, because going forward, he can expect more pressure looks from opposing teams.

All that said, as much as it’s easy to pile on the quarterback for a poor performance, let’s not forget that his offensive coordinator did him no favours.

2) Speaking of Jamie Elizondo, his play calling is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. Against a Montreal defence that was dominating the line of scrimmage and applying heavy pressure to his quarterback, Elizondo decided to abandon the run, calling his running back’s number just three times in the first half. On the night, Elizondo went with a completely unbalanced approach, calling 46 pass attempts to just nine runs. Furthermore, instead of using quick screens or misdirection plays in an attempt to keep the defence off-balance and slow down Montreal’s rush, Elizondo repeatedly used play-action passes. The problem with that is play-action is that it only works when you actually run the ball.

Elizondo’s play calling was suspect most of the night, as reflected by a number of stats. Of their fifteen possessions, Ottawa mustered three scoring drives (all field goals). Nine of their fifteen drives lasted less than five plays. On second down, the Redblacks averaged 2.8 yards per play. Ottawa only converted 10 of 25 second down opportunities (40 per cent). Ottawa was 0 for 2 in the red zone. I could go on but you get the idea.

Most damningly of all was Elizondo’s decision making in the red zone. Faced with a first and goal from Montreal’s three-yard line and trailing by 10 late in the fourth quarter, instead of giving the ball to a running back averaging 5.6 yards per carry on the night, Elizondo called three passing plays in a row. And not slants, screens, play-action to the fullback or a some kind of rollout, but rather deep, back corner end zone shots. It boggles the mind.

Much like the team itself, Elizondo is consistently inconsistent. Although it doesn’t make sense to bring in a new offensive coordinator mid-season, that won’t stop the clamouring for Elizondo’s firing in R-Nation.

3) It’s kind of amazing that William Powell is the second leading rusher in the CFL given how often his offensive coordinator seems to forget he exists. Powell was effective when given the ball (nine carries for 50 yards), averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Fans will be left wondering what could have been, given that Powell only had three carries in the fourth quarter. In addition to getting things done on the ground, Powell made five catches for 31 yards, with 28 of those yards coming after the catch. Powell is clearly among the league’s premier backs, hopefully he starts being used like one.

4) To say Ottawa’s offensive line was pushed around would be putting it nicely. The reality is Montreal’s front seven dominated, imposing their will on Alex Mateas and company. Unable to provide a clean pocket, Ottawa’s offence as a whole sputtered because the big boys up front were outclassed. Although they only conceded three sacks, Harris was pressured nearly every time he dropped back, and even when he wasn’t sacked, he had to rush his throws, often resulting in incompletions. Jason Lauzon-Séguin didn’t have a strong game, but perhaps that was a result of being banged up early in the game. Sophomore Evan Johnson held his own at left guard, but with veteran Jon Gott a healthy scratch for the second consecutive game, maybe Rick Campbell decides to shake things up.

5) For a group that’s often considered the league’s best, Ottawa’s receiving corps had a poor showing. Nearly everyone had at least one drop, with others (Diontae Spencer), dropping numerous balls. The Buds led the way, as they almost always do. Greg Ellingson made eight catches for 114 yards while Brad Sinopoli made five for 51. No other receiver had more than three receptions or 34 yards.

6) As a group, Noel Thorpe’s defence was solid. The Redblacks generated five sacks (with two coming from Danny Mason), two interceptions and most importantly held Montreal to one for four in the red zone. Nevertheless, Antonio Pipkin killed them when it mattered most. Since their inception, the Redblacks have struggled with mobile quarterbacks. That continued last night, as Pipkin gave the defence fits. When he had no throwing option, he simply took off. In addition to throwing for 242 yards, Pipkin scrambled nine times for 75 yards.

7) Playing in his first game since July 28th, linebacker Kyries Hebert finally had an opportunity to play his former team. He made his presence felt, with a game-high seven tackles and a sack. But the lasting image for some will be his helmet to helmet sideline hit on BJ Cunningham. Don’t be surprised to see him fined (again).

8) Jonathan Rose’s 2018 season continues to be boom or bust. Although he had an interception (his third of the season), Rose was repeatedly beaten deep. By my count he allowed Montreal receivers to get behind him three times last night. He twice dodged bullets due to a slight overthrow and a holding flag, but late in the 4th quarter was burned again and it led to a field goal. Rose also let defenders get behind him numerous times in the game against Winnipeg. Given his role as a veteran play-maker, Rose needs to be better.

9) With three more successful field goals (from 40, 13 and 35 yards), rookie Lewis Ward’s consecutive streak now sits at 27, one short of the CFL record. It’s incredible how little buzz outside of the nation’s capital Ward’s streak seems to be getting.

As for the rest of the special teams, Richie Leone had a busy night, punting nine times for 464 yards. Shout out to long snapper Louis-Philippe Bourassa who not only delivered the ball well (as he has all year) but also led the Redblacks with two special teams tackles. That’s hustle.

10) I am not a football coach and Rick Campbell has forgotten more about football that I will ever know. But, the decision to forgo kicking a field goal when down by 10 with 2:06 left was baffling. While there is some merit to the argument that going for the touchdown from the three is easier (given how close you are), failing (which is what happened), left the Redblacks needing two more scoring possessions, instead of one. Furthermore, even though Campbell is not calling plays, if you are in that situation and aware it’s three down territory, why not instruct your offensive coordinator to run the ball? Campbell defended his decision in a testy postgame interview with TSN1200, but to me, he failed Situation Football 101 last night.

11) Losing to the Alouettes drops Ottawa’s record to 6-4 and brings with it a host of questions. Who are the 2018 Redblacks? Is the team for real? Can they actually hope to compete come November? Their season so far can be broken down into a handful of impressive wins (over Saskatchewan, BC, Hamilton and Winnipeg), understandable losses (two to the Stampeders) and a pair of choke jobs to divisional rivals (Toronto and Montreal).

While there’s no reason to think the sky is falling (after all, Ottawa remains atop the East), there is room for legitimate concern about whether Rick Campbell’s squad is capable of buckling down and playing consistently sound football. If the mark of a good team is winning the games you’re supposed to, the Redblacks cannot be called that.

With a brutal five-game Western swing looming (BC, Saskatchewan, Edmonton x2 and Winnipeg), the Redblacks have their work cut out for them. Any kind of losing skid could allow Hamilton or Toronto to potentially leapfrog them in the standings and really crank up the pressure from R-Nation.

12) Lastly, kudos to the Redblacks’ Cheer Team for this show of support.

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).