Discombobulated defence dooms Ottawa (& 13 other thoughts on losing to Montreal)

Left is right. Up is down. Strength is weakness. What you thought you knew is wrong.

Coming into Friday night’s game, the Ottawa Redblacks were scoring an average of 12.1 points per game while conceding 19.6.




Against the Montreal Alouettes, though, it didn’t matter that a quarterback change sparked Ottawa’s offence, because their defence fell apart as the visitors blew them out to the tune of 51-29 at TD Place.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) The fact that Matt Nichols was pulled should come as a surprise to no one — through 13 quarters of play he orchestrated a single touchdown drive and failed to throw for a passing touchdown. But when Nichols was yanked was telling.

It didn’t come after one of his five passes bounced off Nate Behar’s fingers and into the hands of an Alouette defender. Instead, it came after DeVonte Dedmon returned a kickoff 75 yards to set up Ottawa on Montreal’s 27-yard line, and facing second-and-six, Nichols’ pass to Daniel Petermann — the receiver on the wide-side of the field — skipped short.

Nichols finished the night going two-of-five for 23 yards with the one interception. The nine-year veteran has made 76 career starts, posting a 46-30 record but the start against Montreal might be his last for the foreseeable future.

2) Dominique Davis came into the game and as someone who has watched every offensive snap of Ottawa’s multiple times this season, the contrast between the passes Nichols has been throwing and the zip immediately displayed on Davis’ throws was astounding.

Many in R-Nation were skeptical of seeing under Davis back under centre after his erratic performances in 2019. The key difference between then and now is that in 2021, the Redblacks aren’t doing offence by committee.

Before continuing on, it’s important to note that a lot of Davis’ yards came with Montreal’s defence playing soft as a result of being up multiple scores, and yet when the game wasn’t entirely out of reach, Davis strung together eleven consecutive completions.

The change under centre clearly sparked the rest of the offence. Davis’ mobility — he scrambled eight times for 38 yards a touchdown — bailed out his makeshift offensive line numerous times. Davis made good decisions, and got the ball out of his hands quickly.

He completed 69 percent of his passes (23-of-33) while throwing for two touchdowns and two interceptions. Although the turnovers were less than ideal, one came as a result of being under heavy pressure and trying to make something happen. The other bounced off Justin Davis’ hands before picked off.

While far from a perfect performance from No. 4, he did more than enough to earn the start in Vancouver next week.

3) Although we’ll likely never know where the idea originated from, the decision to jettison Nick Arbuckle in favour of Matt Nichols has aged poorly. Some fans believe it was a case of ownership and the general manager pinching pennies coming out of a COVID cancelled season. Others think it was a case of the GM indulging his coach and pairing him with the quarterback he had previous success with.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter now — the move can’t be undone — but the Redblacks better hope someone on their roster can quarterback them to where they want to be in 2021.

4) As mentioned earlier, take these stats with a grain of salt as they were padded in garbage time, but this was Ottawa’s best offensive output by a long shot.

After averaging 188 yards of offence per game, the Redblacks exploded for 396 against Montreal. Ottawa averaged 6.8 yards per play, converted 59% of their second down opportunities (13/22) and were 3 for 3 in the red zone.

Davis was under centre for ten drives — four ended in points (three touchdowns and a field goal) and two in turnovers. Most importantly, five of those ten possessions covered at least 50 yards. That’s something to build off.

5) With Davis in the game, for the first time this season, Ottawa’s wide receivers were regularly involved in the passing attack; Petermann and R.J. Harris had a combined 20 targets. Apparently arm strength goes a long way towards opening up the field.

Petermann finished with seven catches for 77 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Harris made seven catches too, for 67 yards. Behar had two drops — one of which resulted in a pick — but also five catches for 57 yards.

Dedmon got the start and turned his three targets into a pair of catches 52 yards. Ryan Davis averaged 16 yards per reception and Michael Klukas made his first catch of 2021.

6) While the offensive line wasn’t a liability per se, they were repeatedly bailed out of sticky situations by Davis’ mobility. Losing right tackle Na’ty Rodgers to a serious-looking knee injury in the second quarter prompted a significant shuffle.

Mark Korte — the jack of all trades thrust into the centre position following Alex Mateas’ sudden retirement — kicked out to replace Rodgers. Andrew Pickett, a 2018 third-round pick out of Guelph, entered the game at centre.

Overall, the group had solid push in the run game, as demonstrated in particular by a pair of second-and-two quarterback sneaks that resulted in first downs and a touchdown. Not to mention the 4.8 yards Justin Davis averaged per carry.

Both sacks conceded came on plays where left tackle Tyler Catalina was beat.

7) Through three games Mike Benevides’ defensive unit had held opponents to three touchdowns in 44 drives. Montreal matched that in the first half alone.

The Alouettes had their way with Ottawa’s defence all night long, racking up 462 yards and 28 first downs. Montreal averaged 9.3 yards per first down play and 7.3 yards per second down play. They converted 68 percent of second down opportunities (15/22) which is on par for their season average of 63 percent (best in the CFL).

As much as that was due to solid play by the Alouettes, a not insignificant amount was a result of sloppiness and individual mistakes.

Randall Evans is a good player, but he won’t enjoy this film breakdown. Not only did he get beat deep and completely lose track  of the ball in the first quarter, he was also hurdled.

Typically sure tacklers such as Avery Williams and Don Unamba missed multiple takedowns. Others on the defence were guilty of failing to wrap up, instead trying for knockout shots which Alouette players shrugged off or ran through. Marcus Lewis was burned deep, twice. Unamba and Antonie Pruneau undercut or misjudged routes in the end zone.

Eight of Montreal’s twelve possessions ended in points — five touchdowns and three field goals — and two other drives resulted in missed field goals. 31 of Montreal’s 51 points came off turnovers or defensive penalties that kept drives alive which would’ve otherwise resulted in punting situations.

All in all it was not a banner game from the unit that had been a pillar of strength for the Redblacks.

8) On a night when the defensive highlights were few and far between, rookie defensive end Praise Martin-Oguike notched a trio of sacks. One was even good for a safety.

Vernon Adams had a whale of a game, completing 18 of 23 passes for 288 yards and four touchdowns, but perhaps the most impressive thing he did was breaking contain in the pocket with his legs. By continually extending the play, he got out of trouble, bought time him for receivers to get open and wore down the defence.

9) If the CFL is truly a copycat league, I really hope we start to see a trend of 288-pound defensive linemen given goal line carries. Watching Almondo Sewell, a ten-year veteran, punch it in for six was fantastic. More big man majors, please.

 

10) With long snapper Louis-Philippe Bourassa being added to the six-game injured list, I was curious to see how Frédéric Chagnon would do in his stead, mainly because he had never previously long snapped in the CFL. Full credit to Chagnon — the seven times he was called upon, the ball came out with velocity and was on target.

11) Coming into the game, Montreal’s Mario Alford led the CFL in punt returns with an 18.9 yard average. It took a full unit effort — seven different players recorded a special teams tackle — but against Ottawa Alford “only” averaged 9.7 yards per punt return.

12) I’m going to sound like a broken record here but I simply cannot understand why the Redblacks struggle so badly at home. This is their tenth loss in a row at TD Place.

13) After starting the season with a gritty win in Edmonton, the Redblacks have dropped three straight games. The loss to Montreal puts them firmly in last place in the East Division. While it’s much too soon for panic or desperation to set in, the longer the losing streak stretches, the more difficult it will be for Ottawa to dig themselves out of the hole.

Seven of their remaining ten games come against East Division opponents, those outcomes will be decisive.

Up next for Paul LaPolice’s squad is a trip to BC Place to take on Rick Campbell and the Lions. Ottawa fans will be hoping Campbell’s lack of success post-bye weeks followed him to the West coast.

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