Redblacks blunders prove costly (& nine other thoughts on losing to Toronto)

Photo courtesy: Ottawa Redblacks

Thanks to some major self-inflicted wounds, the Ottawa Redblacks fell to the Toronto Argonauts by a score of 35-16 in front of 6,788 fans at BMO Field on Wednesday night.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) In case anyone in R-Nation forgot, good quarterbacks don’t grow on trees. They develop over time, gaining experience and learning from their mistakes. That’s why nobody should be too down on Caleb Evans’ performance in his second career start.

Did he look like a rookie at times? Yes. Did he also show a number of good things that can be built upon? Also yes.

A week after feasting on a leaky — but veteran — Elks’ defence, Evans was in for a much tougher test on the road against defensive consultant Chris Jones.

First the good. On many drives, Evans was in rhythm with his receivers, quickly making reads, putting the ball where it needed to be and hitting guys in stride. He also did an excellent job of using his feet to either extend plays or scramble for first downs. One common mistake that rookie quarterbacks make is trying to force the issue, but against the Argos Evans was patient, working through his reads and taking what the defence gave him, checking down and settling for dump off passes when necessary.

As for the bad, for whatever reason, there were multiple snaps that he seemed to have issues receiving. What I mean by that is centre Mark Korte’s snap was perfect, but when it hit Evans in the hands, he had trouble corralling it. It nearly led to a fumble in the first half and the first pick-six he tossed came as a result of the same thing. If Evans handles the snap cleanly, the throw doesn’t come out late, isn’t tipped and doesn’t result in a pick-six. The extra second it takes him to readjust the ball makes all the difference.

The second pick-six came on a drive which featured four straight completions from Evans before he simply makes an ill-advised late pass, probably trusting his arm a bit too much.

His third interception late in the fourth quarter again was the result of his lack of experience. Argo linebacker Eli Mencer baited Evans by initially rushing, before quickly dropping back into coverage.

Overall, Evans finished the night completing 23-of-41 passes for 334 yards and the three interceptions. He also ran the ball six times for 54 yards. Looking past the turnovers, what stands out is Evans never seemed overly rattled and still averaged 8.1 yards per pass completion and nine yards per rush.

For a guy who had zero pre-season action, making just his second start, there was a lot to like. Evans will need to learn from his mistakes but there’s lots from his performance in this loss that can be used as teaching moments to improve.

2) Obviously the turnovers loom large, but for long stretches of the game, Paul LaPolice’s offence moved the ball fairly well against Toronto. The Redblacks finished the night with 361 yards of net offence but their Achilles’ heel came on second down. Ottawa converted just 5-of-20 second down opportunities (25 percent) and averaged only four yards per second down play. They also went 0-for-3 in the red zone.

Of their 17 offensive possessions, three ended in Lewis Ward field goals, nine in punts and four in turnovers. If you’re looking for positives, six of the drives gained at least 41 yards.

One thing that Ottawa did very well against the Elks that was missing from their offensive attack in Toronto was that against Edmonton, LaPolice kept things balanced, calling 24 runs to 23 passes. Against the Argos, LaPolice dialled up 41 passing plays to just 14 running plays. Given the circumstances, it’s not exactly ideal to lean on your rookie quarterback quite so heavily.

3) Speaking of the running game, part of the reason that LaPolice might have eschewed it is because running back Timothy Flanders continues to underwhelm. Although he was excellent at picking up the blitz, he was otherwise invisible. Against Toronto he averaged 2.7 yards per carry and finished the game with six carries for 16 yards. In 2021 he’s averaging only 3.6 yards per carry.

At this point it’s fair to ask: would Flanders still be starting for another coach? Or if he continues to be Ottawa’s lead back simply because he followed LaPolice from Winnipeg to the nation’s capital. Frankly his production doesn’t merit continued snaps.

Canadian running back Brendan Gillanders was given one carry in the third quarter and gained a yard.

4) When you have a rookie at quarterback, there’s no slack for everyone else on offence. At minimum, you need to do exactly what is expected of you. At worst, you need to dig just a little bit deeper to help him out and overcompensate. So if a rookie quarterback puts the ball in a place where it hits you square in the hands, you need to make the grab. End of story.

Against Toronto, although some in the receiving corps stood out, as a group there were far too many drops. Anthony Coombs made five catches for 60 yards with 40 of those yards coming after the catch while he also had a pair of drops. Ryan Davis hauled in eight passes for 104 yards. R.J. Harris made four grabs for 84 yards but had a drop. Kenny Stafford caught three passes for 75 yards but had a drop.

DeVonte Dedmon, Nate Behar and Flanders all made a single catch for five, three and three yards respectively.

5) Another very solid performance from Ottawa’s offensive line. The insertion of Global player Chris Ferguson at left tackle was seamless. The Canadian trio of Jakub Szott, Mark Korte and Nolan MacMillan continues to improve. Jamar McGloster held his own at right tackle.

As a group, the offensive line gave up just two sacks on 41 drop backs, and one of those sacks came on a play when Evans should’ve simply thrown the ball away. On the whole, the offensive line provided Evans with clean pockets to step up into and gave him time to go through his reads. When things did break down, they hustled to help by throwing downfield blocks when he decided to take off and run.

It took awhile to see the fruits of Bob Wylie’s labour, but his group is slowly rounding into form.

6) Mike Benevides’ defence deserved a better fate. Although the Argos put up 35 points, 21 of them came with Ottawa’s defence standing on the sidelines; two pick-sixes and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown.

The Redblacks shut down the Argos for basically the entire game. Toronto gained just 213 yards of net offence, picked up 12 first downs and averaged 4.4 yards per play.

Early on, Ottawa’s defence was so stout that following a first quarter turnover on downs when the Argos failed to convert on third and one, Toronto choose to punt on third and inches. When was the last time you can recall a CFL team doing that?

The Redblacks’ defensive performance is even more impressive when you recall that 63 of the Argos’ 213 yards came on a single play in the third quarter: a 63-yard screen pass.

Honestly, kudos to Toronto for it. Sometimes as a defence you just get got. Specifically when you’re blitzing and the opponent dials up a perfectly executed screen, it often results in a house call. The exact same thing happened to Ottawa in the 2018 Grey Cup.

Ottawa held Toronto to a 30 percent second down conversion rate (6-of-20) and of their 14 possessions, nine resulted in punts. Ten Argo drives gained less than 15 yards.

Middle linebacker Avery Williams made a game-high eight tackles and seems magnetically drawn to the ball. Even if he’s not making the tackle, he’s never more than a few yards away from the ball.

7) Strange night for Bob Dyce’s special teams units. Lewis Ward made all three field goals he attempted, Gillanders blocked a punt in the fourth quarter that was pounced upon in the end zone by Frederic Chagnon and Dwayne Norman forced a fumble on a kickoff that was recovered by Terrance Abrahams-Webster. Yet it still felt like Toronto had the edge.

Marco Dubois missed a block in the second quarter that resulted in a blocked punt touchdown. The score gave the Argos life and a spark when they otherwise had nothing going for them. Toronto seemingly did well to contain DeVonte Dedmon but his “quiet” night resulted in averages of nine yards per punt return and 22 yards per kickoff return.

8) TSN needs to be better and cut out their awful in-game interviews. It’s distracting, takes away from what’s happening on the field and literally overshadows some of the game’s biggest moments. It seems to happen every single week and Wednesday night it again happened multiple times. Blocked punts and forced fumbles were glazed over because Duane Forde and Marshall Ferguson were chatting with Matt Dunigan and Pinball Clemons.

I get that TSN wanted to honour the 1991 Grey Cup-winning Argos squad, but either have a special pre-game show, do it during half-time or skip a commercial break.

Furthermore, when action IS happening, don’t just talk about it, show us. Late in the fourth quarter there was apparently some kind of fracas in Ottawa’s bench with Argo players strutting through it. Only the people at BMO Field would’ve seen it though, because as Forde talked about it, TSN’s cameras where locked on and zoomed into Chandler Worthy’s face as he waited for officials to sort things out so he could return the punt.

9) It’s a weird thing to say but that was easily Ottawa’s best loss of the season. I say that because even though they came up short, the offence moved the ball, the defence was stout and their special teams had positive, impactful plays. Ideally you win those games but sometimes as you have young players at crucial positions coming into their own, there will be bumps in the road.

The quick turnaround before their next game — in Montreal on Thanksgiving Monday — is a blessing in disguise as it will allow the team to quickly flush the loss and move on.

At 2-6 the playoffs are realistically out of the picture but with five of their six remaining games against Eastern opponents, a win versus the Alouettes keeps those hopes mathematically alive.

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).