Ottawa comes up short in Montreal (& ten other thoughts on losing to the Als)

In a war of attrition with the Montreal Alouettes, the Ottawa Redblacks came up just short, losing by a score of 20-16 in front of 15,236 fans at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:




1) Tough to evaluate Caleb Evans’ performance in his third career pro start. The stat line isn’t great — 13 completions on 23 attempts for 125 yards and one interception — but it doesn’t come close to properly telling the story.

The reality is Evans was handcuffed all game long by one of the worst offensive line performances in franchise history. Every single time he dropped back to pass, he was almost immediately under siege. No quarterback is going to be successful throwing off his back foot the entire game as Evans was forced to do.

The 23-year-old was picked off once and was fortunate the defence failed to hang onto the other four passes they got their hands on. The near misses were less a result of Evans making bad reads, and more a result of him choosing to throw up passes with Montreal defenders draped all over him. With time he’ll learn to either eat the sack or throw the ball away instead of trying to force the issue.

The most encouraging thing is that the mistakes Evans is making are correctable, and he’s clearly got the tools to succeed. Once again he used his legs effectively, running the ball five times for 64 yards. His arm strength was also on display on deep strikes to Nate Behar — for a gain of 41 yards — and Ryan Davis, which resulted in a 48-yard pass interference flag.

Evans is a promising prospect and needs to keep playing in order to grow, he just needs more help from those around him to ensure he continues to develop.

2) When your offensive line is as porous as Ottawa’s was against Montreal, it really limits what the offensive coordinator can do. That’s why it’s no surprise that Paul LaPolice’s offence failed to generate much production. The Redblacks finished the game with 228 yards of net offence, 13 first downs and averaged 5.1 yards per play.

They struggled to sustain drives, as evidenced by the fact that nine of their fourteen offensive possessions gained nine yards or less, with three actually resulting in negative yardage. Ottawa converted a measly 5-of-19 second down opportunities — 26 percent — and for the second consecutive week, had zero red zone production, going 0-for-2 in the money area.

LaPolice attempted to keep his attack balanced, calling 23 passes to 17 runs but ultimately it didn’t matter. Perhaps as the play-caller, he could have done a bit more to try and slow up Montreal’s pass rush by dialling up a few more screen plays — not hitch passes — or draws, but at the end of the day, if the offensive line can’t block, you really can’t do much of anything.

It was clear the Redblacks made a concerted effort to get the ball into DeVonte Dedmon’s hands and although his five targets turned into four receptions, it only resulted in 10 yards, which is less than ideal.

3) Running back De’Lance Turner had a solid debut for the Redblacks, carrying the ball 10 times for 71 yards — that’s a season high amongst all Ottawa backs. Three of his runs went for 10-plus yards and his power was on full display when he turned his shoulders upfield, put his head down and barrelled forward. On a couple of plays, he seemed guilty of trying to be a bit too shifty in the open field which resulted in smaller gains than if he had simply plowed his way forward. Against the Als, Turner was at his best when he ran north and south while he also caught three passes for 15 yards.

It’s only one game but Turner’s performance made the ground game relevant for the first time all season. Hopefully that means he continues to get starts and increased touches.

4) It’s not a revelation to say that right guard Nolan MacMillan is an important player for Ottawa, but sometimes it takes an absence to really hammer the point home. With the franchise’s first ever draft pick forced to miss the contest due to injury, Juwann Bushell-Beatty slid in to replace him. If there was ever any doubt about MacMillan being a stabilizing force on the offensive line, it is now squashed.

It’s not so much that Bushell-Beatty was terrible, it’s rather that without MacMillan, ever single other player on the line regressed. The stat sheet only shows five sacks conceded by the group, but in actual fact Evans was hit, knocked down or made to feel uncomfortable every time he tried to pass the ball. The only reason the sack total isn’t higher is because of his scrambling ability and throwaways.

Global Chris Ferguson was awful at left tackle, directly responsible for three sacks on his own. Canadians Jakub Szott and Mark Korte and Bushell-Beatty utterly failed to provide any kind of clean pocket for Evans to step up into and regularly allowed Montreal defenders to collapse the interior of the line.

The Redblacks better hope MacMillan returns to the field ASAP.

5) It’s very tempting to write that once again Ottawa’s defence played well enough to win, but that’s not quite true. What is true is that aside from two bad drives, Mike Benevides’ unit put forth another phenomenal defensive effort. They limited Montreal to 331 yards of offence and generally made life hell for Vernon Adams Jr. The Redblacks sacked Adams six times, led by a pair of sacks from Carleton Ravens alum Kene Onyeka, and hit him numerous other times.

Of Montreal’s fourteen offensive possessions, eight drives lasted five plays or less, seven drives ended in punts, two in safeties and one in an interception, four resulted in points, two field goals and two touchdowns.

The reason we can’t say the defence played well enough to win is because at the game’s biggest moment, they came up short. Perhaps fatigue set in — Montreal had over 35 minutes of possession — but what it boils down to is that Ottawa had a chance to win the game with one more stop. The Als were down three, on their own 36-yard line, with two minutes and 36 seconds left in the game. At best, a turnover on downs seals the game. At worst, a field goal should’ve tied it and sent things to overtime.

Instead, an otherwise stout defence collapsed at the worst possible time, allowing Montreal to march 74 yards, mainly with backup quarterback Matthew Shiltz, and punch in the game-winning touchdown with 24 seconds left.

It was bizarre to see Ottawa seemingly back off on the game’s final drive. After being quite aggressive for the majority of the game, when Shiltz came in it’s almost like the Redblacks were content to sit back and see what he could do. They gave him time to beat him, and he did.

6) Three defensive performances and plays likely lost in the shuffle are linebacker Micah Awe’s game-high 11 tackles, core special teamer and rotational defensive lineman Nigel Romick’s first career sack and Brandin Dandridge’s sweet sliding interception.

7) Abdul Kanneh’s hit on Adams will get plenty of talk this week.

In slow motion it looks terrible and at the end of the day, could Kanneh simply leap over him? Yes, but that’s never been his style. Kanneh might not have the biggest frame but he’s made a career of playing with reckless abandon with zero concern for his own body. He consistently launches himself at opposing players, at times even injuring himself. That chaotic energy lifts the defence as a whole and forces offences to account for his presence.

In this particular instance I think a couple things are true. One, Adams could have probably slid earlier. Two Kanneh was already in the process of throwing himself for the hit. Three, Kanneh leans in and leads with his helmet, which should have instantly drawn a flag. Four, Kanneh mostly missed, otherwise this hit could have been a helluva lot worse.

Lastly, where the hell were the league’s injury spotters on this play?

8) Another solid night for Bob Dyce’s special team units. Lewis Ward continues to be close to automatic, nailing field goals of 34, 21, 32 and 25 yards.

Punter Richie Leone had a glorious night of smashing the football, averaging a net field position flip of 43.4 yards. A couple of his coffin corner punts coming down inside the 10 led directly to Alouette safeties after defensive two and outs. Frankie Griffin and Romick led the way with two special teams tackles each. Dedmon averaged 11.8 yards per punt return, with his longest gain of the night being 17 yards.

9) A short week between road games wrecked havoc on the Redblacks. Avery Williams, Ryan Davis, Jamar McGloster and Anthony Gosselin were all banged up and missed snaps at various points of the game. Thankfully, some of them, such as Williams, later returned. Still, with another short week on tap, it’ll be worth monitoring who is actually available for Saturday’s rematch at TD Place.

Talk of player safety rings hollow whenever a team plays three games in 11 days, as Ottawa will counting Saturday’s match against Montreal.

10) With the loss, Ottawa’s playoff hopes are mathematically hanging by a thread. Saturday’s rematch in the nation’s capital is a must-win if the Redblacks harbour any post-season aspirations.

At this point though, all but the most optimistic of fans should understand that the playoffs are not happening. Instead, LaPolice and his coaching staff should use the team’s remaining five games to evaluate talent they can grow and build with going forward into 2022. This is the time for extended looks at younger players. This is when rookies gain experience that will serve them well in future years.

It’s not about throwing in the towel or giving up, but rather being realistic and getting a head start on 2022. It might mean more mistakes and losses in the near term, but better to have those growing pains now as opposed to next season.

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