Seven takeaways from the Redblacks’ regular season

After watching the Ottawa Redblacks finish the 2018 regular season with an 11-7 record (their best since 2015), we can safely draw some conclusions about Rick Campbell’s squad.

As the team has evolved and developed an identity since the opening kickoff in June, certain tendencies have revealed themselves. Along with those tendencies come stats. As the saying goes, you are what your record says you are, or in this case, you are what the numbers say you are.

The stats referenced below help us understand how they Redblacks got to where they are today (hosting the East Final) and what it means for their Grey Cup push.

Trevor Harris is good, but can be even better

Strange thing to say about a quarterback who completed 70 per cent of his passes (431 of 615) for a career high 5,116 yards with 22 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions, but it’s true. Nobody in their right mind would deny that Trevor Harris had a spectacular year under centre for the Redblacks, and yet, he left a lot of points off the board.

For starters, although Harris was deadly in the 0-19 yard range, completing 75.5 per cent of his passes (395 of 523), on pass attempts that traveled more than 20 yards, his completion percent cratered to 39.1 per cent (26 of 92).

Furthermore, Harris also left a lot to be desired on second down. Although Ottawa led the CFL with a league high 257 first downs via passing, Harris only completed 48.9 per cent of his passes on 2nd down (203 of 415).

While these numbers aren’t causes for major consternation, after all, Harris had ten 300-plus yard games and finished the regular season with the highest efficiency rating among all quarterbacks, they do show that as good as Harris has been, there’s room for improvement. Harris can still take his game to another level and that should scare defences.

Powell is the ultimate dual threat

After resting the final two regular season games, William Powell should be fresh and raring to be in the East Final. That bodes well for the Redblacks because a healthy Powell is invaluable.

Powell was a beast for Ottawa and his hard running style often set the tone. He had a league high 251 carries which resulted in 1362 yards (5.4 per carry), six rushing touchdowns and six 100 yard games. Powell had nine runs of 20-plus yards and averaged 85.1 rushing yards per game (the most in the CFL).

In addition to getting the job done on the ground, Powell was a huge part of Ottawa’s passing attack. When he wasn’t busy picking up the blitz, Powell proved to be a reliable safety valve for his quarterback when plays broke down.

The most impressive aspect of Powell’s 39 catches is not that he gained 319 yards and averaged 8.2 yards per reception but rather that his average reception depth was just 2.8 yards. That demonstrates that not only was Powell clearly a check down option, but that his ability to make defenders miss is second to none. Powell finished the regular season with 250 YAC (yards after the catch), meaning 78 per cent of his receiving yards came after he caught a short pass.

Powell had a team high eight touchdowns (six rushing, two receiving) and if he’s fully healthy and ready to be leaned on during Ottawa’s push to the Grey Cup, Rick Campbell’s decision to rest him for the final two regular season games will prove to be a wise one.

Spreading around the “Money Down”

Fans are aware of the three headed monster in Ottawa’s receiving corps (Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson, Diontae Spencer) but it’s the emergence of a fourth dependable option that has given Ottawa’s offence an extra dimension.

The big three are predictably Harris’ favourite 2nd down targets. Sinopoli leads the way with 36 catches that have moved the chains followed by Ellingson’s 33 and Spencer’s 22.

What is surprising is the development of rookie R.J. Harris, who finished the regular season with 20 catches on 2nd down. With opposing defences focusing on shutting down William Powell and Ottawa’s big three, R.J. Harris often finds himself in one on one situations. As he’s taken advantage of those situations, he’s increasing been called upon by Trevor Harris.

With everyone looking for an X-Factor in the playoffs, R.J. Harris looks poised to be someone who could have a coming out party for the Redblacks during the playoffs.

It’s not capital punishment, but the defence is for real

In 2017, the Ottawa Redblacks went 1-7-1 in games decided by four points or less. A large part of that was because their defence simply couldn’t close out games. To address that issue, GM Marcel Desjardins brought aboard Noel Thorpe. In hindsight, it may have been the best move the GM made in the off-season.

Thorpe has Ottawa’s defence playing fast, physical and as they’ve repeatedly demonstrated in 2018, they are quite capable of closing out a game. Look no further than how the unit ended the regular season. Going back to the start of the second half against the Ticats in Week 19, the Redblacks’ defence hasn’t allowed a touchdown in the last ten quarters they’ve played.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Thorpe’s defence is that there is no single impact playmaker for opposing offences to key on. Instead, week after week it’s a collective effort, as reflected by the fact the Ottawa boasts nine different defensive players with 44+ tackles.

The Redblacks’ defence gives up just 23.3 points per game (3rd fewest in the CFL), limits opponents to 4.8 yards per rush and concedes an average of 6.3 yards per first down play (both 2nd best in the league).

In terms of turnovers, the Redblacks generated 33 sacks, 16 interceptions, forced 19 fumbles (recovering 14), forced 44 two and outs, had five turnovers on downs and scored three defensive touchdowns.

A year after being a liability, Ottawa’s defence heads into the 2018 playoffs as a force to be reckoned with.

A dangerous (and deep) defensive line:

Defensive line coach Leroy Blugh has his group balling out. As mentioned above, one of the main reasons Ottawa’s defence has been so successful is because there is no one specific player opposing teams can key on. That is especially true when you break down the sack distribution along the defensive line.

A.C. Leonard: 6 sacks
Danny Mason: 4 sacks
Micheal Klassen: 4 sacks
George Uko: 3 sacks
Mike Wakefield: 3 sacks
Avery Ellis: 3 sacks

Although Leonard leads the group, as the numbers show, it really doesn’t matter which part of the defensive line rotation is on the field at any given time, as literally everyone is capable of pressuring the quarterback. That wears down an offensive line.

Beyond Ward, the special teams are aces

Lewis Ward gets a lot of love (and rightly so), but with everyone’s attention focused on Ottawa’s rookie phenom and his unprecedented streak of 48 straight successful field goals, the rest of the Redblacks’ special teams have been overlooked.

Bob Dyce’s units have been on fire, specifically the coverage units. It helps to have a great punter (which Ottawa does in Richie Leone), but a large reason he’s looked so good is due to strong coverage units. Thanks to Leone’s directional punting and disciplined coverage, Ottawa leads the league in net yardage gained per punt with an average field position flip of 39.7 yards.

Much like how their defence is a collective effort, so too is their special teams coverage. Nigel Romick leads the way with 21 special teams tackles, followed closely by Kevin Brown (17), J.P. Bolduc (14), Andrew Marshall (12) and Anthony Cioffi, Brendan Gillanders, Justin Howell and Danny Mason with eight apiece.

They should always go for two

Rick Campbell has been the most aggressive coach when it comes to going for two this season, and it’s paid off handsomely. Of the 23 times the Redblacks have gone for two, they’ve successfully converted 17.

That’s largely due to some excellent play-calling by offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo. Elizondo has done an excellent job of keeping things unpredictable, mixing in runs, play-action rollouts and screens to fullbacks of tight ends.

It’ll be interesting to see if Campbell maintains his aggressiveness as the temperatures plummet and pressure rises. As the numbers show, with the Redblacks converting 73 per cent of their two point conversions, it would be worth it.

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).