Off-beat offence obstructs Ottawa (& 12 other thoughts on the Redblacks loss to Saskatchewan)

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

The Ottawa Redblacks had hoped to use their early bye week to work through the offensive issues that plagued their season-opening win in Edmonton. However, it quickly became apparent in their 23-10 loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Saturday night that those issues still linger.

Here are all my thoughts on the only meeting between these two teams this season (barring a Grey Cup matchup):

1) After a poor showing in Week 1 vs. the Elks, everyone around the Redblacks insisted that Matt Nichols wasn’t playing through an injured shoulder and that it just need the rest provided by the bye week.

Against Saskatchewan, although he had a few errant and wobbly passes, overall the ball showed a zip that R-Nation had yet to see from Nichols. This was specifically displayed on two beautiful passes to R.J. Harris — a 42-yard bomb in the first quarter that led to a field goal and a 25-yard strike in the fourth quarter that set up Ottawa’s only touchdown.

Although his stat line looked better than last week — Nichols completed 19-of-24 passes (79 percent) for 176 yards and an interception — his biggest issue was that too often he seemingly chose not to push the ball downfield. Even on a third-and-21 late in the fourth quarter when trailing by multiple scores, Nichols choose to check the ball down to a receiver well short of the first down line in hopes they’d make a play.

Through two games, Nichols has completed 31 passes. Only four have travelled more than ten yards, which is why he’s currently averaging only 5.6 yards per pass.

Nobody should be surprised that Nichols is a conservative quarterback; his MO is avoiding risks and turnovers. But if the reason he’s not pulling the trigger on more downfield passes is because his inexperienced receiving corps isn’t creating as much separation as he’s used to, something’s gotta give.

I say that because the Redblacks gave up six sacks vs. Saskatchewan and four of those were directly a result of Nichols holding onto the ball too long. As a veteran quarterback, he has to know when it’s smarter to throw the ball away rather than trying to extend the play and taking an unnecessary hit.

If R-Nation is looking for silver linings from his performance, it’s clear that Nichols is capable of throwing deep; his arm is not shot by any means. The trick will be for Paul LaPolice to figure out how to scheme his receivers into better spots and for Nichols to be more willing to trust them to make plays.

But what many fans in the nation’s capital will be focusing on is that following another uninspiring performance from their man under centre, the guy they used to have — Nick Arbuckle — put on a show in Toronto as he led the Argos to a win.

Whether you believe it’s fair to make comparisons this early in the season or not, the reality is they’re happening and won’t go away. Nichols’ and Arbuckle’s weekly performances will be laid side by side and dissected and it’s not debatable that this week belonged to the guy down the 401.

2) While it wasn’t the toothless offensive attack on display in Edmonton, the Redblacks’ offence struggled in Regina to maintain any kind of rhythm. There were a few positives, however — the team picked up 14 first downs (doubling their Week 1 total) and they improved their second down conversion rate to 50 percent.

That was largely as a result of their first down production as they averaged 5.3 yards per first down play, because even though they converted more second down opportunities, they still only averaged 2.8 yards per second down play. That’s simply not conducive to winning football.

Of Ottawa’s 12 offensive possessions, only three covered more than 28 yards. Two ended in points — a field goal and a touchdown — while another resulted in a missed field goal, and two in turnovers.

3) It’s fair to point out that losing the only running back they dressed for the game might have impacted how LaPolice called his offence. Before going down with a hip injury, Timothy Flanders made eight carries for 35 yards. Once he exited the game, he was replaced by DeVonte Dedmon.

To Dedmon’s credit, he played valiantly and ran hard; his five carries resulted in 31 yards and a touchdown. In fact, his 6.2 yards-per-carry average was actually higher than Flanders 4.4 yards-per-carry. With that said, I’m not sure how often you really want to be pounding the ball between the tackles with your generously-listed five-foot-ten, 200-pound primary kick returner.

4) Aside from Harris’ pair of deep catches, the main takeaway from Ottawa’s receiving corps for those watching was that they really struggled to stay onside and time their pre-snap motions with the snap of the ball. Harris finished the night with five catches for 101 yards. Ryan Davis turned four targets into five catches for 21 yards, with 19 of those yards coming after the catch. Daniel Petermann made three catches for 19 yards and Nate Behar had as many catches as he did offside flags (two).

5) With right guard Nolan MacMillan missing the contest due to a calf injury, for the first time in franchise history, the Redblacks started three Americans on their offensive line. From left to right they lined up as follows: Tyler Catalina; Jakub Szott; Mark Korte; Juwann Bushell-Beatty; and Na’Ty Rodgers. Catalina and Szott were making their second career starts, while Bushell-Beatty was making his first.

Photo credit: Joshua O’Connor/Ottawa REDBLACKS

Although it was far from a banner night for the big boys up front, the hard numbers — six sacks conceded and 3.9 yards per rush — don’t tell the full story. As mentioned earlier, four of the six sacks came as a result of Nichols hanging onto the ball for too long. Given how inexperienced his offensive line was, some of the onus to help them out is on the quarterback.

That’s not to say the offensive line was blameless — Catalina in particular had a rough game — but more could have been done to mask their lack of experience. With that said, not having their typical running back in pass protection also did them no favours.

Through two games the Redblacks have given up eleven sacks and rushed for a total of 118 yards. With so many new faces, the group will take time to gel and build cohesion but it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Good teams are built from the trenches out and until Ottawa’s offensive line play improves, their offence as a whole will continue to struggle.

6) For the second week in a row, Mike Benevides’ defence gave the team a chance to win. Despite Saskatchewan moving the ball up and down the field with relative ease, whenever they got into the red zone, the Redblacks tightened up. In fact, the only Saskatchewan touchdown came on a drive that was kept alive by an illegal contact flag.

Overall, Saskatchewan piled up 397 yards of net offence while averaging 6.7 yards per play. Ottawa limited them to a 42 percent conversion rate on second down and held them a single touchdown on four red zone trips. Of their thirteen possessions, six ended in points: five field goals and a touchdown.

Middle linebacker Avery Williams once again led the defence in tackles with nine. Antoine Pruneau was constantly around the ball and finished the night with six tackles. Justin Howell filled in for an injured Abdul Kanneh and showed great tenacity while making four tackles.

Defensive lineman Avery Ellis made three tackles and had two knockdowns. Shoutout to De’Chavon Hayes for his perfect coverage on an attempted flea-flicker. He was stride for stride with the receiver, had his head back to the ball and timed his knockdown perfectly.

And yet even with the above-mentioned individual performances, Ottawa failed to generate a single turnover or a sack. Cody Fajardo was rarely pressured at all as evidenced by his 85 percent completion rate. The 321 yards he passed for were significant but where he really did his damage was keeping drives alive with his nine scrambles for 47 yards.

Former Redblacks’ running backs William Powell was a non-factor, with his ten carries resulting in just 20 yards.

As long as their offence is struggling, Ottawa’s defence can’t just be good, it needs to be great. Not getting turnovers and sacks isn’t great.

7) While it was disappointing to see Lewis Ward miss a kick, it’s nice to know he’s still human. Furthermore, R-Nation will appreciate that he got his annual miss out of his system in Week 3 as opposed to later in the season. Ward finished the night with a 33-yard field goal to his credit and a 52-yard miss.

Richie Leone had another excellent game punting the football, blasting seven kicks for 336 yards, including a perfectly-placed coffin corner punt that pinned Saskatchewan on their five-yard line in the second quarter. Leone’s punts resulted in a net field position flip of 43.4 yards, which speaks to his hang time and the coverage unit doing their jobs well. Randall Evans and Tyler Vrede each had a pair of special teams tackles.

8) It was a sloppy night of football from LaPolice’s squad. The eleven flags called on the Redblacks gifted Saskatchewan 104 free yards, kept Saskatchewan drives alive, wiped out good returns and put Nichols and company in long situations when they started drives.

9) A week after the command centre wiped out a trick play punt return touchdown, they were yet again a topic of conversation for Ottawa. First, there was a 31-yard sideline pass at the end of the first half ruled a completion to Brayden Lenius.

Personally, I think slow motion distorts it because even if he comes down with the ball in bounds, the fact that it’s immediately jarred loose by Pruneau as they go out of bounds should rule it incomplete. Perhaps if it had been initially ruled incomplete, that call would’ve stood, too.

The second incident with the command centre came with Ottawa trailing by 13 with 1:46 left in the game. Saskatchewan was trying to chew clock and handed the ball off to Powell who was promptly stood up. Even well after forward progress was stopped, the refs failed to blow it dead. Players are constantly told to play to the whistle and Ottawa did, the ball popped out and it was recovered by Sherrod Baltimore.

Somehow the command centre was able to see through the pile of bodies to determine without a shred of doubt that Powell was down before the ball came out but again it seemed like another instance where the initial call on the field should’ve stood.

For those saying that Ottawa should’ve known the play was dead, I’ll counter with the fact that had Powell popped out of the pile and scampered for a touchdown, the Redblacks defensive players would’e been lambasted for quitting early on the play.

10) When the Redblacks released their depth chart this week, it was noticeable that they had left themselves thin on offence.

They dressed a single running back (Flanders), only one extra offensive lineman and two quarterbacks. The lack of third quarterback is a result of a (silly) new rule put in place by the league, but having only a single running back came back to bite them when Flanders left.

They were fortunate that their offensive line depth wasn’t tested either. Throughout the course oft the game Flanders, Marco Dubois, Don Unamba, and R.J. Harris were all nicked up. Given that the players are coming off of a two-year layoff, not dressing enough depth at each position is a significant gamble each game.

11) The Redblacks have a new coach in LaPolice yet they continue to be haunted by the bye week blues. In one of the strangest stats in franchise history, since 2016 the Redblacks are 2-9 following a bye week. Their inability to use an extra week of preparation to their advantage is baffling.

12) There’s no shame in losing on the road to an undefeated Saskatchewan team that looks like the best in the league. With the loss, Ottawa’s record drops to 1-1 on the season and they fall to third place in the East Division, behind Toronto and Montreal. To be frank, most had the Redblacks pencilled into an 0-2 start, so being .500 is definitely something to build on.

Their defence and special teams will keep them in games but if they want to move back into the win column, the offence must pull their weight.

Up next for Ottawa is a very winnable home game vs the B.C. Lions. It will be the Redblacks first game at TD Place in nearly 20 months and should they need extra motivation, they’ll be up against Rick Campbell, the only other coach in franchise history.

Up to 15,000 members of R-Nation could be on hand, but that number is not guaranteed to be hit since as of right now, there is no proof of vaccination required to attend, which has many season ticket holders leery.

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).