Much has been made about the Ottawa Redblacks sweeping the season series against the Hamilton Ticats, but really, who cares?
With the two teams set to meet Sunday afternoon at TD Place with a Grey Cup berth on the line, as soon as the ball is kicked off, Ottawa’s regular season dominance over the Ticats counts for exactly zero.
To beat the same team (the Ticats) a fourth time, something that has rarely happened in a single CFL season, the Redblacks will need to ignore their past success against Hamilton and instead concentrate on playing fundamentally sound football at the level they are capable of.
Here are seven things the Redblacks must do in order to beat the Ticats:
Feed the beast
Although William Powell will never come out and publicly say it, watching Andrew Harris edge by him for the rushing title while being held out of Ottawa’s final two regular season games must have stung. But in the big picture, having a highly motivated and healthy Powell trumps an individual accolade.
Powell led the CFL with 85.1 rushing yards per game and had a team high eight touchdowns (six rushing and two receiving). When Powell gets going, good things happen for the Redblacks.
The key will be for offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo to remain patient with the run game if big lanes aren’t immediately opened. When Powell is given at least 14 carries, Ottawa is 9-4. Given that Sunday’s game will be cold and snowy, Elizondo needs to feed his running back.
Of Ottawa’s 259 regular season offensive possessions, 38 finished in touchdowns, 52 in field goal attempts, 31 in turnovers and 87 in two and outs.
55 times the Redblacks drove into the red zone, yet they came away with touchdowns just 47.3 per cent of the time.
In the playoffs, points are at a premium. And as nice as it is to have a reliable kicker like Lewis Ward in your back pocket, the reality is that Ottawa cannot be content settling for three points.
When Trevor Harris and company march into Hamilton’s red zone, they need to finish drives. Plain and simple.
Make the most of turnovers
During the regular season, Noel Thorpe’s defence consistency produced turnovers. In 18 games the Redblacks picked off 16 passes and forced 19 fumbles.
Unfortunately, the offence struggled to cash in when their defence handed them a gift. The 41 turnovers forced by the defence resulted in just 78 points on the board. To provide a bit of context, Winnipeg was the best team in the CFL at making opponents pay for mistakes, with a league high 151 points off of turnovers.
In their three regular season games against the Ticats, Ottawa forced six turnovers yet only came away with six points from them (two field goals).
If the Redblacks want to continue their season, they must make the Ticats pay when they make a mistake.
Keep Harris upright
When given time, Trevor Harris has proven himself to be a Ticat killer. So far this year, Harris has completed 70-of-97 passes (72 per cent) against Hamilton for 836 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
For that trend to continue, Harris needs solid protection from his offensive line, a group that allowed 43 sacks, second most only behind Montreal’s 66.
Hamilton will bring a variety of blitzes and pressure packages, hoping to knock Harris off his game early. One thing that Ottawa has going for them is that after an extended absence, veteran Nolan MacMillan looks to return to the starting line up at right guard.
Jeremiah Masoli is the league’s most dangerous dual threat at quarterback. He finished the regular season with 5,209 passing yards and 473 rushing yards.
Despite his impressive numbers, the Redblacks did a good job containing him in their three previous meetings. Of Masoli’s 63 rushes in 2018, just four came against Ottawa (for a total of 37 yards). Masoli was also sacked five times and picked off four times by the Redblacks.
If Ottawa’s defence is going to have success on Sunday, they have to continue to contain Masoli. That means pass rushers and blitzing linebackers must remain disciplined and not allow Masoli to get outside them and break contain.
Win the field position battle
During the season series, of Hamilton’s 40 possessions against the Redblacks, only one began inside Ottawa’s territory. The Ticats’ average start per possession was on their own 32-yard line.
With eight different players with at least eight special teams tackles, Ottawa’s coverage units are a force to be reckoned with. It’s no accident the group leads the CFL in net yardage gained per punt with an average field position flip of 39.7 yards.
Solid kick coverage combined with a returner like Diontae Spencer, who averaged nearly 18 yards per punt return against the Ticats, should provide the Redblacks with favourable field position, for both their offence and defence.
Take advantage of home cooking
Even if winning the season series has no impact on the scoreboard, it did provide the Redblacks with one huge advantage; they’re playing the East Final at home. With a sell out crowd of 24,000 raucous plaid-clad members of R-Nation expected to be on hand, it’s safe to say Hamilton will be in a hostile environment.
Ottawa’s goal will be to channel that energy into a heightened on-field performance. History shows that playing the East Final at home does indeed provide an edge. The host of the East Final has won eight of the last 10 games, and each of the last four. R-Nation will be doing their best (and pulling for) that trend to continue.