For the first time in 667 days, the Ottawa Redblacks played a game of football in front of fans at Lansdowne, a tradition that stretches back to at least 1898.
Their opponent on Saturday night was the B.C. Lions, led by a familiar face: Rick Campbell, the only other head coach in Redblacks’ franchise history.
The 15,000 members of R-Nation on hand were loud, sticking it out despite a downpour as they tried to do their part. Ultimately, Ottawa fell to the visitors by a score of 24-12.
— CFL (@CFL) August 29, 2021
Oddly enough, with the win, Campbell remains undefeated in home openers at TD Place with a career record of 5-0-2.
Here are my thoughts on the game:
1) The Redblacks have a quarterback problem, no ifs ands or buts about it. Through three games, Matt Nichols has led the team on exactly one touchdown drive. That’s unfathomable in a league that lends itself to offence.
Against the Lions, Nichols completed 23-of-37 attempted passes for 206 yards and an interception. He’s fortunate that total wasn’t higher, as the Lions dropped another very snaggable misplaced pass.
— CFL (@CFL) August 29, 2021
Before continuing, it’s worth mentioning that Nichols had a couple of good throws hit receivers in the hands that were dropped. Those catches might have gone a long way towards improving his stats and putting points on the board.
Much like last week, however, Nichols was more than content to check the ball down and take the safe option. As a quarterback, you can’t constantly throw short of the sticks and bank on your receiver making someone miss.
Through three games it’s quite apparent that Nichols either can’t (due to lingering shoulder issues) or won’t (because he doesn’t trust his receivers/isn’t comfortable with the routes they’re running) push the ball down the field. The lack of deep passes is handcuffing the offence and allowing opposing secondaries to cheat and sit on short routes.
In a normal year, Week 4 would be much too early to push the panic button, and with six of the nine teams in the league sitting at 1-2, nobody is out of playoff contention. But 21 percent of the shortened 14-game season is already gone.
Paul LaPolice and his coaching staff need to seriously consider whether tying their aspirations for the 2021 campaign to a quarterback averaging 5.6 yards per pass is they route they want to go.
Benching Nichols this early would be a massive mea culpa. After all, Ottawa choose to cut Nick Arbuckle in favour of Nichols specifically because LaPolice was more comfortable with the veteran due to his familiarity with his offensive system. Admitting Nichols isn’t the answer would be an acknowledgement of a huge error.
For that reason alone I think Nichols continues to start, but in a post-game press conference LaPolice seemed to open the door to the possibility of Dominique Davis or Caleb Evans under centre.
Paul LaPolice on the @TSN1200 postgame show when asked about the possibility of putting in Dominique Davis at QB. “We have a lot of things to evaluate through three games on offence because this is unacceptable”
— AJ Jakubec (@TheSuperAJ) August 29, 2021
2) With betting all the rage these days, here’s a prop bet not even the bravest gambler would’ve taken before the season started. Through twelve quarters of football and 40 offensive possessions, LaPolice’s offence has orchestrated a single touchdown drive.
Somehow, after three games the Redblacks’ offence has produced as many touchdowns as the Redblacks’ defence.
It’s not as if LaPolice’s creativity and offensive playbook has vanished. In fact, against B.C. LaPolice tried a number of different tactics to keep the Lions on their heels. There was play-action, rollouts, receiver sweeps, quick pitches, and screens. Some were more effective than others but sparks of life were there. Still, more often than not, the offence was stuck spinning its wheels in the mud.
Of Ottawa’s fourteen drives, seven were two-and-outs. Three others moved the chains once, and four ended in turnovers. The Redblacks generated 266 yards of total offence but averaged only 4.7 yards per play. They converted just 10-of-24 second down opportunities (42 percent) and came up empty on their single trip to the red zone.
It’s not as if the Redblacks are without weapons who can make things happen when the ball is in their hands — R.J. Harris, Ryan Davis, and DeVonte Dedmon — but right now Ottawa’s horrendous offensive output is wasting strong defensive and special teams performances. It’s baffling that Dedmon finished the game with more handoffs (two) than targets in the passing game (one).
3) Justin Davis’ first career start running back in the CFL resulted in a lot of touches, but little else. Davis was handed the ball twelve times and rushed for 43 yards, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. In the passing game he was targeted seven times and made four catches for 14 yards. He also had an extremely ill-timed fumble.
— CFL (@CFL) August 29, 2021
Davis was far from the reason the Redblacks lost the game, but he also didn’t do much to help them win, either.
4) Ryan Davis led the way for Ottawa’s receiving corps with eight catches for 70 yards. That was the good. The bad was a pair of drops on second down that killed drives.
Nate Behar hauled in five passes for 66 yards and most impressively, four of his five catches moved the chains on second down. Behar isn’t scared of taking a hit and seems to thrive in the slot. Ottawa would do well to continue to find ways to get him involved.
The only other receiver who caught more than one pass was Daniel Petermann who turned two targets into a pair of catches for 20 yards. During training camp much was made of Petermann’s speed, route-running and pre-existing knowledge of LaPolice’s system, yet he’s got only five catches on the season. It’s tough to be involved with the offence when the quarterback rarely throws to the outside.
R.J. Harris and Charone Peake each made a single catch and both had drops on second down.
5) The return of Nolan MacMillan at right guard went a long way towards solidifying the play of the offensive line. With MacMillan sliding back into the lineup, the Redblacks shuffled Juwann Bushell-Beatty to left guard and demoted Jakub Szott to the extra (sixth) offensive lineman role. Americans Tyler Catalina and Na’Ty Rodgers started at tackle and Mark Korte remained at centre.
Overall, the group was steady against the Lions’ stout front-seven. Although they struggled to open running lanes — 18 carries resulted in 72 yards — and got manhandled on a third-and-two run play that resulted in a turnover on downs, the group held up in pass protection, conceding two sacks on 37 dropbacks.
It was far from a perfect game, but the big men up front are slowly rounding into form.
6) For a defence that was missing a lot of proven talent — Cleyon Laing, Stefan Charles, Abdul Kanneh and Sherrod Baltimore — there was no real noticeable drop-off in the high standard we’ve come to expect from Mike Benevides’ defence.
Although the Lions wound up with 387 yards of offence and averaged 6.8 yards per play, eleven of their fifteen drives resulted in two and outs or a single first down. B.C. was held to a 41 percent conversion rate on second down (9-of-22) and went one for three in red zone opportunities.
The defence notched a pair of sacks but for the second consecutive game failed to generate a turnover.
Randall Evans had a whale of a game, registering seven tackles and a sack. He was in or around every single pile. Avery Williams and Justin Howell finished with five tackles apiece and stood out for the right reasons. Antoine Pruneau’s perfectly-timed pass breakup on a deep ball in the first quarter prevented a huge gain.
7) In stats that might interest only me, Michael Reilly is now 8-3 in eleven career starts vs. the Redblacks. Coming into the game, Reilly had thrown ten completions of 20-plus yards. Against Ottawa, he had two, although one was inches from being incomplete.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) August 29, 2021
8) Lewis Ward is special. Rain or shine, he’s ruthlessly efficient. Once again, he was responsible for every single point the Redblacks put on the board, nailing kicks from 20, 48, 47 and 38 yards out. Of course, it must be said Ward is only as good as his long snapper and holder, which is why Louis-Philippe Bourassa and Richie Leone round out the Lansdowne holy trinity.
— Ottawa REDBLACKS (@REDBLACKS) August 29, 2021
Speaking of Leone, after a pair of shaky — read: shanked — opening punts, he settled in and finished the night with a 39.7 yard net average. The coverage teams were stellar, limiting the dangerous Chris Rainey to just 3.6 yards per punt return.
9) Plenty of former Redblacks made their returns to TD Place as members of the visiting team. Dominique Rhymes, J.R. Tavai, Anthony Cioffi, and Jacob Scarfone as players and Rick Campbell, Jordan Maksymic, Don Yanowsky, and Travis Brown as coaches.
Rhymes made one catch for six yards before exiting with an ankle injury, Tavai made three tackles and had a sack, Cioffi didn’t register a tackle, and Scarfone had a drop. In terms of the coaches, Travis Brown’s linebacking corps stole the show — Jordan Williams alone was worth the price of admission.
10) It’s bizarre that on a night where the Redblacks took the field with a pride flag and that featured both teams wearing rainbow decals on their helmets to commemorate Pride Week, TSN failed to even bring it up or mention it once.
— Ottawa REDBLACKS (@REDBLACKS) August 29, 2021
11) The more things stadiums have that a) make them unique and b) celebrate their fan base, the better. That’s why it was so cool to see the Redblacks unveil the Legacy Wall: a giant eight-foot buzzsaw with the names of season ticket holders engraved on it.
Season Seat Members – the secret is out…check out the #RNation Legacy Wall at Gate 1 and look for your name on the 8 X 8 saw blade.
Watch for an email early next week with more details. pic.twitter.com/5FsLvwGNGX
— Ottawa REDBLACKS (@REDBLACKS) August 28, 2021
12) The loss to the Lions runs the Redblacks home losing streak to nine games. Their last win at TD Place came in Week 2 of the 2019 season when Dominique Davis led Ottawa to a 44-41 win over Saskatchewan.
The Redblacks have played 60 games at TD Place in franchise history. They’ve only managed 24 wins despite almost always playing in front of sold out crowds. Go figure.
13) With the loss, the Redblacks have fallen to 1-2 on the season and remain in third place in the East Division. Next up for LaPolice’s squad is a matchup with Montreal for a Friday night under the TD Place lights. It will be Ottawa’s first game of the 2021 season vs. an East Division opponent.