Redblacks underwhelm (& eleven other thoughts on losing to Montreal, again)

On a rainy Saturday afternoon at TD Place, the Ottawa Redblacks came out on the wrong side of a divisional game with the Montreal Alouettes for the second consecutive week, this time losing by a score of 27-16 in front of 16,139 members of R-Nation.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:




1) For the second start in a row, Caleb Evans wasn’t great and it wasn’t really his fault. Did he make some bad throws? Yes. Did he hold onto the ball too long at times? Yes. Did his coaching staff or teammates help him out at all? No.

Evans finished the game with 12 completions on 23 pass attempts for 145 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He also scrambled three times for 31 yards.

Evans was far from perfect, but his performance needs to be examined in a wider context. His offensive line was sponge-like, conceding 10 sacks; put another way, one every three times he dropped back to pass. It wasn’t just one defender in the pocket either, every passing play seemed to feature multiple defenders getting hands on him. Not even the most veteran quarterback can go through their reads and progressions without time to do so.

Head coach and offensive play caller Paul LaPolice didn’t seem to do him many favours either. In Evans’ first start, he was extremely successful throwing on the run and getting his legs involved on designed quarterback runs. Against the Alouettes, Evans was asked to be a pocket passer. Rollouts were few and far between. Why no run-pass options with a speedy player like Anthony Coombs?

Evans might develop into a lot of things, but a magician won’t be one of them. As a 23-year old rookie, he needs those around him to help him tread water until he learns to swim on his own.

2) As much as LaPolice is handcuffed by truly atrocious offensive line play, what kind of offensive guru only calls seven run plays in a downpour with a rookie quarterback? Where were the adjustments to Montreal’s relentless pass rush and blitz? Where were the above mentioned rollouts? A strength of Evans. Where were the screens? Why no quick slants? It’s hard to understand.

Instead, LaPolice dialed up a shotgun run from his own end zone, which predictably resulted in a safety, and a double reverse play that resulted in a massive loss. To reiterate, I understand that the offensive line is doing their best impression of a sieve, but as the play caller, there’s things that can be done to help out a struggling group up front.

The Redblacks finished the game with 184 yards of net offence, averaging 3.4 yards per play. They converted 6-of-29 second down opportunities (29 percent.) They went 1-of-3 in the red zone. 16 of their 19 offensive possessions gained 20 yards or less — only two gained more than one first down. Seven ended in punts, four in turnovers, two in safeties and four in points.

To the best of their ability, coaches need to put their players in positions to succeed. Is that happening right now in the nation’s capital?

3) I hated the decision to put Taryn Christion into the game after Evans’ third interception. On one hand, I understand wanting to switch things up and try something different. On the other hand, given the situation, it made no sense. When Christion entered the game, it was still raining, Ottawa was down two scores and backed up under the shadows of their own goal posts on their own two-yard line. Not exactly an ideal place for your backup rookie quarterback — who had previously attempted zero career passes — to come in cold off the bench.

Christion’s three drives resulted in two completions on six pass attempts for 20 yards, a 29-yard run and a season-ending injury as he tried to recover a fumbled snap. Tough way for Christion’s season to end. His injury immediately looked long term and likely means Devlin “Duck” Hodges will be on the active roster for Ottawa’s next game.

4) Another productive game from De’Lance Turner, but just like last week, his number was rarely called. The 26-year old averaged 4.6 yards per carry and finished the game with seven carries for 32 yards. The Alcorn State product could be a decisive factor in games if he was more heavily involved.

5) Last week’s decision to bench American receiver Kenny Stafford was a strange one and his return to the active roster reinforced why he should continue to see the field. The 2015 Grey Cup winner is a veteran presence — in an otherwise young group — and continues to produce, hauling in three passes for 45 yards and a touchdown.

As for the rest of the receiving core, Ryan Davis led all Ottawa pass catchers turning 10 targets into five catches and 70 yards. As a whole, Redblack receivers struggled to create any kind of separation, as evidenced by the fact that the group combined for a total of 28 yards after the catch (YAC.) That’s just not good enough.

6) For the tenth time in 10 games, the Redblacks went into a game with a fresh combination on their offensive line. This time around Ottawa lined up with American Dino Boyd at left tackle, Canadians Jakub Szott and Mark Korte at left guard and centre, American Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right guard and Global Chris Ferguson at right tackle.

It was somewhat shocking to see Ferguson starting again after his performance at left tackle last week. To say the unit was terrible would be putting it lightly. In what was essentially a must-win in terms of keeping their post-season hopes alive, the group up front gave up a sack every three plays. Even on plays that won’t go down as recorded sacks, they allowed pressure to get home and hammer the quarterbacks. Evans, and later Christion, took a beating. 10 sacks is embarrassing for all involved.

At times, Ottawa attempted to stem the bleeding by moving the versatile Korte around and throwing backup lineman Andrew Pickett in at centre, but to no avail.

No easy answers at this point in the season, it’s not like there are starter-level offensive linemen out on the streets, they’re either already on CFL teams or on NFL practice rosters. It’s not like the guys on the Redblacks can do much more to improve. With the changes to the CBA and league rules, teams rarely practice in pads and never hit. Given that hitting is a fundamental part of blocking, I’m not sure how any young linemen are supposed to develop. How can you improve at something without actually doing it?

It’s a rhetorical question but one the Redblacks need to grapple with given four of their five current starters are in their rookie seasons. In games like yesterday the retirement of Alex Mateas and the opt out of Alex Fontana loom large.

7) Once again, a solid effort from Mike Benevides’ defence. Ottawa didn’t exactly make Matthew Shiltz uncomfortable, but for the most part, the defence was stout.

Although the Alouettes racked up 386 yards of offence, 19 first downs and averaged 6.3 yards per play, they struggled to actually maintain and finish drives. Of their 18 possessions, 12 covered less than 20 yards, 10 resulted in punts, three in turnovers and five in points. Montreal also only went 1-for-5 in the red zone.

Randall Evans led the way with a game-high 11 tackles. He also had a sack and forced a fumble. As a group, Ottawa’s defensive line did a masterful job of knocking down Shiltz’s passes. Don Unamba had a pair of knockdowns and Cleyon Laing, Kene Onyeka and Davon Coleman each had one. If a defensive lineman can’t get to the quarterback for a sack, the next best thing they can do is get their hands up.

8) Week in and week out, Bob Dyce has his special teams units firing on all cylinders. Lewis Ward did his thing, nailing field goals of 23, 32 and 45 yards. Richie Leone pounded his punts, averaging 53.4 yards per kick. Thanks to fantastic kick coverage — led by Nigel Romick’s three special teams tackles — Leone’s punts resulted in an averaged field position flip of 44 yards. Quan Bray only averaged 6.8 yards per punt return, which was a huge win for the home team.

It’s a small thing but it’s worth mentioning because it’s a large reason why he’s so important to the team. In addition to his defensive duties, starting Canadian safety Antoine Pruneau plays multiple special teams roles. Perhaps none is more critical than him being the edge man on punt cover to force returners back into the middle of the field. It rarely results in him making the special teams tackle, but without Pruneau down the field consistently sealing the edge, Ottawa would be conceding a whole lot more return yardage.

9) Before going down with an injury, DeVonte Dedmon was well on his way to another monster day. His two punt returns resulted in 116 yards, with the longer one coming in at 69 yards, and he was averaging 18.3 yards per kickoff return.

Losing Dedmon hurts not only because he is a literal game-changer, but because he’s perhaps the only truly explosive player on Ottawa’s roster.

Davis wasn’t awful replacing him, he had a 23-yard punt return, but there was a noticeable drop off. He caught a couple of punts that he should have let bounce into the end zone and let a couple bounce that he should have caught as they would have resulted in no yards flags. That knowledge comes with more reps and experience.

If Dedmon is forced to miss time, the Redblacks should consider turning to practice roster player Terry Williams. In college, Williams was dynamic and his skill set should transfer well to the wider Canadian field.

10) Dear schedule makers, three games in 11 days should never happen again. The Redblacks currently have 11 players on their six-game injured list, another seven on their one-game list and had multiple players go down during the game. The league needs to stop paying lip service to player safety and take meaningful, legitimate action.

11) I mentioned this last week but following another loss, it’s even more true. The Redblacks are firmly in evaluating for 2022 territory now. Theoretically if Ottawa wins out and other teams lose out, they could still make the playoffs, but there’s been absolutely nothing to suggest that is within the realm of possibility.

LaPolice and his coaching staff must use their remaining four games to see which veterans continue to grind and play hard, and provide young players with increased snaps to speed up their development.

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