Shoddy second half sinks Redblacks (& eleven other thoughts on losing to the Eskimos)

For the opening 30 minutes in Edmonton, the Ottawa Redblacks looked competent and competitive. For the final 30, they were anything but, especially on offence. A 16-14 half-time lead quickly vanished during a horrific third quarter and ultimately the Redblacks lost 34-16.

Rick Campbell’s squad failed to match the home team’s tenacity and was thoroughly outplayed by an Eskimo team that had lost five of their previous six games.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) On paper, Trevor Harris’ stats look impressive; 21-of-26 for 291 yards, one touchdown and one (garbage time) interception. Harris completed nearly 81 per cent of his passes and spread the ball around to eight different receivers. But numbers can be deceiving. Of Harris’ 291 passing yards, 227 came in the first half, meaning he threw for just 64 in the second half.

All season long Harris has struggled to push the ball downfield. It can be debated whether that’s on him or his offensive coordinator (more on Jamie Elizondo in a minute), but what cannot be denied is that the Redblacks’ passing attack too often goes sideways instead of down the field. Of Harris’ 21 completions, only four travelled more than 20 yards in the air. Given the speed and ability of the play-makers in Ottawa’s receiving corps, that needs to change. ASAP.

It must be acknowledged that it’s hard to throw deep, long developing routes when you’re under siege, but at this point in the season, there is no magical cure. Whether it’s by moving around the pocket or rolling out, Harris must find a way to overcome his offensive line’s deficiencies.

2) Speaking of deficiencies, let’s talk about play-calling. When he’s in a groove, Jamie Elizondo oversees one of the league’s most dangerous attacks. When he’s not, like last night, it’s painful. The most frustrating part of the loss is that for a half, Ottawa’s offence looked decent. Of their seven first half possessions, the Redblacks scored four times (three field goals and a touchdown). The big issue last night was that Elizondo seemingly failed to adapt. Ottawa’s first five possessions in the second half led to punts, and only one drive wasn’t a three and out.

Not only does that kill any offensive momentum it also puts the defence in a bind. Edmonton controlled the ball for 11:33 of the third quarter and 20:48 of the second half. As an offence, even if you’re not scoring, you want to at least move the chains a few times to give your defence a breather.

In addition to being shutout in the second half, the Redblacks generated a measly 73 yards of offence. Too often Elizondo’s play-calling had the ball moving horizontally instead of vertically, putting the onus on his receivers to make defenders miss to pick up yards. Hitch screens are useful and serve a purpose, but they shouldn’t be a go-to play.

Furthermore, on the rare occasions when the Redblacks did get into the red zone, they came away empty-handed, going 0-for-2 on the night. This is nothing new, on the year, Ottawa has turned just 44 per cent of its red zone possessions into touchdowns. That’s why as impressive as Lewis Ward’s consecutive field goal streak is (and it IS impressive), it’s a damning indictment of the offence’s inability to finish drives.

Against the Eskimos, Elizondo’s offence somehow averaged 9.3 yards per first down play yet only 3.3 per second down play. Of Ottawa’s 17 second down conversion attempts, only five were successful (29 per cent). With the talented play-makers Elizondo has at his disposal, putting up points and sustaining drives shouldn’t be this difficult.

3) With all that said, my biggest issue with Elizondo’s play-calling last night was the fact that he once again got away from the run. There is simply no justification for not feeding the league’s leading rusher (coming into this week). When you’ve got a weapon like Powell, you need to use it. Powell’s name was called just nine times against Edmonton, and he responded by averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Only two runs in the second half, in what was a one score game until the fourth quarter, is inexcusable.

Here’s a fun stat. The Ottawa Redblacks are 8-1 in games when Powell has 15 carries. They’re 0-6 in games when he has less than 15 carries. If I can spot that trend, the guy in charge of the offence should be able to figure it out too.

4) Thanks to a six catch performance, Brad Sinopoli set a new Ottawa record for most catches in a season. With three games to go, Sinopoli has 101 catches on the year. That bypasses Greg Ellingson’s record of 96, which was set last season.

As for the rest of Ottawa’s receiving corps, it was good to see Diontae Spencer get loose and take a deep pass 61 yards for a touchdown. Spencer made four other catches on the night, averaging 9.2 yards per reception. Greg Ellingson snagged three passes for 60 yards while R.J. Harris and J.C. Beaulieu each had a pair.

5) You know things are bad for your offensive line when it struggles to keep a clean pocket against a three man rush. Edmonton’s defensive line bullied the Redblacks, much as they did three weeks ago when the two teams last met. The Eskimos sacked Harris five times but were in the backfield every other play and routinely harassed him.

At this point, there’s no denying that the offensive line is a liability. Either they don’t have guys capable of playing at the level required (meaning a ratio change is necessary) or Elizondo and/or John McDonell aren’t scheming it right. Although McDonell has over 30 years experience coaching, this is his first season coaching in the CFL. Perhaps letting Bryan Chiu walk this past off-season wasn’t the wisest move.

6) Coming into the game, much was made of Edmonton’s offensive woes. They’d gone nearly three games without a touchdown. They’d turned the ball over fifteen times and struggled to protect Mike Reilly, conceding 10 sacks and averaged just 220 passing yards per game. That’s why you always had the feeling that a team with Reilly under centre would eventually figure things out. And likely sooner rather than later.

Against the Redblacks, Reilly and company had plenty of opportunities to work through their issues. By dominating time of possession, holding onto the ball for over 36 minutes, the Eskimos wore down the Redblacks.

To be fair to Noel Thorpe’s unit, despite being banged up (no Antoine Pruneau or Kevin Brown, and Avery Williams and Randall Evans both left the game with injuries), the unit still forced a pair of first-half turnovers. But ultimately it was the Mike Reilly show.

Given a clean pocket (Ottawa failed to record a sack), No. 13 shredded the Redblacks both in the air and on the ground, averaging nearly 12 yards a completion and over 7 yards per rush.

Additionally, the Redblacks struggled to contain Edmonton’s ground game, allowing C.J. Gable to average 5.1 yards per carry.

And on the rare occassions when the defence finally forced a stop and got off the field, three plays later their offence put them back out there.

7) Chris Ackie didn’t play every down in his Redblacks debut, but he still managed to record a trio of tackles. Have to think his snaps increase next week because something needs to give at the safety position. Jean-Philippe Bolduc is an excellent special teamer. He does great work in the community, but as a defensive starter, he’s no Pruneau. Bolduc struggled in coverage and with his angles of pursuit, which was highlighted when Bryant Mitchell burned by him for a 75-yard touchdown to put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter.

8) By nailing three more field goals, Canadian rookie Lewis Ward has now extended his streak of consecutive successful field goals to 43. I’ve said it before but I’ll mention it again: as much as this streak is Ward’s, it’s also long snapper Louis-Philippe Bourassa’s and holder Richie Leone’s. They are a seamless unit completely in tune with one another.

In other special teams news, the cover units were again solid, limiting Edmonton’s longest return to a gain of 17 yards. On the flip side, both R.J. Harris and Diontae Spencer looked dangerous for Ottawa, with returns of 37 and 30 yards respectively.

9) One of the few positives Ottawa can take away from this game is that a week after being flagged twelve times for 174 yards, their discipline was much improved. The Redblacks were only flagged five times against Edmonton but two of those flags proved costly, extending Eskimo offensive drives and leading to touchdowns.

10) On August 17th, the Ottawa Redblacks had a 6-3 record. Since then, they’ve won just two games and lost four. This is the time of year when teams talk about peaking at the right time and heading into the playoffs on a high. If things continue the way they’ve been going, the Redblacks will be sliding into the playoffs ice cold.

11) That said, although calls for changes will be plentiful this week in the nation’s capital, the reality is that at 8-7, Ottawa still controls its fate. With a massive home-and-home against the Ticats looming, the East Division title (and the right to host the East Final) is still up for grabs.

Despite Ottawa’s poor play of late, there’s still time to right the ship. Thanks to a July win over the Ticats in Hamilton, two wins in their final three games allows for a first place finish and winning regular season record, an accomplishment that’s eluded the team in recent seasons.

To beat the Ticats and instill a shot of confidence in their fan base, the Redblacks will need to discover their identity, because, after fifteen games, they’re still very Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Is this a team capable of stringing together the necessary wins to make a real push for the Grey Cup, or are they just another November pretender?

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).