A little QB play goes a long way (& a dozen other thoughts on Ottawa snapping their skid)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

We’re constantly told that football is the ultimate team sport. On some level it’s true; most plays require a dozen men working in perfect harmony in order to be successful.

And yet, it’s incredible how the performance of single player can fundamentally change the outcome of a game.

The insertion of rookie American quarterback Caleb Evans into Ottawa’s lineup was the spark the team needed. His performance not only resulted in Ottawa snapping their five game losing streak, it made the offence as a whole function more fluidly, the defence looked improved and it significantly changed the vibe in the fan base.

Here are all my thoughts on the Redblacks sweeping their season series against the Edmonton Elks:

1) The 23-year-old Evans dazzled in his Redblacks’ debut. It’s not only about what he did, throwing for 191 yards and three touchdowns while running seven times for 59 yards, but also about what he didn’t do: turn the ball over. That was a big reason why he become the first Ottawa quarterback to win his inaugural pro start since Kerry Joseph in the Renegade era.

Evans engineered crisp drives and spread the ball around, not locking on to any single target. He hit his receivers in stride and oozed confidence. His ball placement was fantastic as put it where only his guys could catch it. For a guy making his first pro start, he looked nothing like a novice. The moment never seemed too big for him.

One game does not make a career, but this was a promising start. Sure, some will argue he succeeded in part because the Elks had no real film to use to game plan for him and that is a valid point, but on the flip side, Edmonton’s defence is loaded with veterans. In theory, those two things should cancel each other out.

Coming out of camp there were rumblings that Evans had all the tools to be successful in the Canadian game, but that he needed time to adjust to the playing style. His time marinating on the practice squad seems to have paid off.

It’s incredible that after a single start, the fourth player to take a snap for Ottawa under centre in 2021 — we can’t overlook Nate Behar’s brief stint last week — is already tied with Dominque Davis for the team lead in passing touchdowns at three.

2) Coming into the game, Ottawa had not held a lead at any point in their last five games — wild stat. Against Edmonton though, head coach Paul LaPolice watched his quarterback lead an opening touchdown drive and never look back.

The Redblacks’ offence didn’t generate an absurd amount of offence — finishing the night with 329 total yards — but when they had the ball they made the most of it. They went 3-for-4 in the red zone, averaged 6.7 yards per play and converted 45 percent of their second down opportunities. Of their 14 possessions, five drives resulted in points, one in a missed field goal and six moved the ball at least 30 yards.

LaPolice dug deep into his playbook, dialing up timely quarterback draws, misdirection plays and a beautiful trick play that featured a hitch pass to Ryan Davis who in turn, launched the ball 37 yards to Kenny Stafford.

For the first time all season, LaPolice’s offence was almost perfectly balanced, he called 24 runs to 23 pass attempts. It’s clear that LaPolice believes he finally has a quarterback capable of mentally and physically orchestrating his offence, so it will be interesting to see how it develops in the weeks to come.

3) Although Timothy Flanders didn’t have a fantastic night running the ball, he averaged just 3.2 yards on his 14 carries, where he did excel was in pass protection. He made a number of blocks picking up the blitz and freed up lanes when Evans was flushed out of the pocket on scrambles. One of his two catches turned into a beautiful 15-yard touchdown scamper.

It was nice to see Canadian running back Brendan Gillanders get a pair of carries, one in the second and one in the fourth quarter, but he also struggled to find space, gaining just five yards.

4) Shockingly, a competent quarterback meant a productive night for Ottawa’s receiving core. R.J. Harris turned five targets into four catches and 80 yards, with 44 coming on a single explosive play in the first quarter. In addition to his trick play pass, Davis made five catches for 67 yards, with 30 of them coming after the catch. Speaking of YAC (yards after catch), 17 of Anthony Coombs’ 21 yards were generated that way. He’s come on strong the past two games and LaPolice would be wise to continue to find ways to get the ball into his hands.

Finally, Stafford had a pair of catches, including a touchdown, against the team that cut him earlier this season.

How’s that for culture?

5) Fifth time’s the charm? Forced to juggle their offensive line once again due to injuries, Ottawa turned to their familiar combination of a Canadian trio in the middle of the trenches boxed in by two American tackles. Manning the left tackle spot was Trevon Tate, but more on him in a minute.

Overall, it was the offensive line’s strongest performance of the year. They regularly provided Evans with a clean pocket to step up into but were also aided by his mobility. Of the 23 times he dropped back to pass, he was only sacked once. Of course, the group took another hit with their seemingly weekly offensive line injury, this time it was Jakub Szott who was hurt and forced to leave. He was replaced by Andrew Pickett.

Thankfully nobody else went down, because there literally was nobody else dressed. Just as they have all season long, the Redblacks failed to dress more than a single backup offensive lineman. Personally, I’d like to see them take a page from the Blue Bombers’ book. Maybe you’ve heard of them, the reigning Grey Cup champions and current best team in the league? Winnipeg always dresses two backup offensive linemen. Why not follow that?

Circling back to Tate, he truly was a steady presence at left tackle. Something I initially missed is that he joined the Redblacks this week from Toronto’s practice roster. At first, I believed this extra practice roster was only to be raided by teams in the case of a COVID outbreak, a la the Elks in Week 4, but it turns out that’s not the case at all. Instead, this practice roster can be accessed at any time by any team, for any reason.

It seems that due to injuries to tackles Tyler Catalina and Na’ty Rodgers, both of whom are on the six game list, Ottawa plucked Tate off of Toronto’s practice squad earlier this week. Although they could technically keep him in town for as long as he remains on the Redblacks’ active roster, per a John Hodge source, Tate is already on his way back to the Argos.

It’s bizarre that the best tackle performance Ottawa has had all season won’t be followed by another start.

6) Who knew that a solid quarterback performance impacts both sides of his team’s performance? For most of the 2021 season, Mike Benevides’ unit has taken the field knowing that they needed to be practically perfect to compensate for poor offensive outputs. Freed from those heavy psychological expectations, Ottawa’s defence flourished. Led by a monster game from SAM linebacker Don Unamba, he notched nine tackles, a sack and forced a fumble, the group as a whole was solid and opportunistic.

Although the Redblacks’ gave up a lot of yardage, 422 yards to be exact, whenever they needed a stop, they got it.

Of the Elks’ 15 possessions, seven resulted in punts, three in turnovers and only five generated more than 30 yards. Edmonton converted 43 percent of their second down opportunities, which is slightly below their season average.

Playing with the lead for the first time in over a month gave the defence a swagger they had been sorely lacking. Issues remain, Brad Muhammad was burned for yet another deep completion, and the Elks went 2-for-2 in the red zone, but overall the unit is trending upwards.

7) Have to take a moment to shout out Antoine Pruneau. Playing in his 100th game and making his 79th career start, the original Redblack made four tackles, had a fumble recovery and sealed the game with a late interception.

It’s notable that at this stage of his career, Pruneau continues to be a key contributor on defence AND special teams. And quite often, as his performance goes, so too does the rest of the defence.

8) For the second straight week, DeVonte Dedmon returned a kick for a touchdown. It was the fourth kick he’s taken to the end zone in just 11 career games.

But it wasn’t just that he scored again, it’s that every single time Dedmon caught a punt or kick-off, he seemed a threat to take it to the house. Against Edmonton Dedmon averaged over 30 yards per punt return and 33 yards per kick-off return. He was constantly flipping the field in Ottawa’s favour.

Dedmon is electric and deserves endless accolades as he ascends into the upper echelon of CFL returners, but let’s also give some serious love to special teams coordinator Bob Dyce and all those blocking and paving his paths to the end zone.

9) As for the rest of Ottawa’s special teams, Lewis Ward nailed field goals of 15 and 32 yards but missed from the 50. Richie Leone punted seven times for an average of 43 yards per punt, but the net flip was only 33 yards. Nice to see that long snapper Louis-Philippe Bourassa picked up right where he left off before his injury.

10) Kudos to the 12,108 members of R-Nation who were finally treated to a home win, Ottawa’s first since June 20, 2019. Not only did fans show up, they created a hell of an atmosphere. They were loud when they needed to be and the usual characters, such as Mr. Shoe Beer, were doing their thing.

With the victory, the Redblacks snap their skid of 11 straight home losses, the second longest streak of its kind in CFL history. It was nice to see that the chainsaws hadn’t seized up and that wood cookies were still being doled out.

A week after a franchise low 5,392 came out on a rainy Wednesday night, many voices around the league piped up concerned that there were deeper issues at play and that perhaps something was deeply amiss in R-Nation.

Instead, over 12,000 showed up on another week night to watch a rookie QB help his team to victory. They had no way of knowing the outcome, yet down to TD Place they trudged. Thankfully, the Redblacks were entertaining in all three phases of the game and when the team puts on a show like they did against Edmonton, it ensures people will come back out again.

DeVonte Dedmon-Ottawa RedBlacks-28sept2021-Photo Scott Grant

11) Nice to see OSEG and the team do their small part to honour Indigenous cultures ahead of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. There was a pre-game performance by the Twin Flames, John Chabot, the founder of a sport and education charity that works with Indigenous youth, was given a wood cookie, a donation was made to CHEO’s Aakuluk Children’s Clinic, and players wore special “Every child matters” decals on their helmets

12) It’s only one win, but the victory accomplished a couple of important things. First, it put a dagger into the chatter around the constant home losses. Second, it got them back into the win column for the first time since Week 1. Third, and perhaps most importantly, showed fans they are capable of playing fun football. Almost instantly the conversation around the team has changed from incredibly negative to bullish optimism. In sports, a little hope goes a long way.

It’s strange to think but depending how this weekend’s slate of games go, Ottawa could find themselves a single game out of a playoff spot. Up next for LaPolice’s squad is a trip down the 401 for a date with the Argos at BMO Field. Yet again, it’s another mid-week Wednesday game.

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).