Ottawa outcoached in Hamilton (& 11 other thoughts on losing to the Ticats)

The Ottawa Redblacks weren’t just blown out by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Week 12 at Tim Horton’s Field, they were once again embarrassed.

When the final whistle blew the scoreboard read 32-3 but even that felt generous — the game was close, at kickoff.




Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) I’ve been banging this drum for awhile and I will continue to do so: Caleb Evans is being hung out to dry. He’s not a perfect quarterback, but nobody should expect the rookie to be. Starting CFL quarterbacks aren’t grown in a lab, they develop over time after playing meaningful reps.

The unwritten rule about those reps though, they need to come from a coaching staff trying to protect their developmental project and supported by strong play from their teammates. Evans isn’t getting either of those things.

Before being pulled in the third quarter, Evans had completed 12-of-15 pass attempts for 138 yards and one interception. The first pick was entirely on him as it came from an overthrow. The second came when he was under pressure, rolling out to escape a sack and throwing across his body.

As we have seen multiple times throughout his five starts, at times when he’s under heavy pressure — and he’s nearly always under heavy pressure — Evans tries to force a play and it goes sideways. Veterans know better, young quarterbacks know too, but they need to learn the hard way, as he currently is.

Although he only finished with a single scramble for 10 yards, Evans used his legs effectively, constantly dodging linemen in the collapsing pocket. When given time, the 23-year-old has repeatedly shown he can hit receivers in stride and make the right reads. The problem is that he rarely ever has time.

Considering the deck is stacked against him, Evans is performing admirably. Hopefully he continues to get starts and more opportunities to overcome his mistakes and grow.

2) Really disliked the way head coach Paul LaPolice handled Devlin “Duck” Hodges’ playing time. Duck entered the game in the first quarter on a second-and-one quarterback sneak. He converted but instead of leaving the game as backup quarterbacks typically do after picking up the first down, he remained under centre. An incompletion and short pass later, Ottawa punted. The problem? On the very same drive, Evans had scrambled for a first down and just completed a nine-yard pass. He was in rhythm, why mess with that?

LaPolice quite clearly didn’t learn his lesson, because again in the second quarter, immediately after Evans tossed a perfectly placed ball to R.J. Harris for a gain of 27 yards to step up the Redblacks on Hamilton’s two-yard line, he was pulled again. In came Hodges for a pair of quarterback sneaks that gained zero yards and led to a Lewis Ward field goal.

I honestly don’t get the rush from R-Nation — and the coaching staff — to see Duck in action. He’s been with the team for five weeks. He’s signed for two more seasons after this one. Yes, he started six NFL games for a historic franchise and went 3-3, but why is the organization forcing the issue? Hodges should not be treated differently from any other American coming up to Canada and learning the game.

What did the coaching staff hope to prove? That he looks just as pedestrian behind the league’s worst offensive line? Mission accomplished I guess.

Hodges completed 50 percent of his passes against Hamilton for 49 yards and one interception. The longest drive he orchestrated was 19 yards. None of this should be read as burying Hodges, perhaps he will indeed one day be the face of the franchise, but this rush to get him live reps because he’s got a cool backstory is odd.

3) Since we’re on the topic of questionable decisions, are we sure LaPolice actually deserves his reputation as one of the league’s best play-callers? Or did he simply benefit from a better coaching staff and a Hall of Famer at running back in Winnipeg? I’m not questioning his knowledge – the man has forgotten more about offensive football than I can ever hope to know — but do we know for sure he’s good at making in-game adjustments and feeling the flow of a game?

I ask because through 11 games Ottawa has scored nine offensive touchdowns. Six times LaPolice’s offence has been shut out of the end zone entirely. His former team on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have missed a beat without him directing their attack.

Furthermore, why does he continually do things that put his young quarterback at a competitive disadvantage? Last week in the pouring rain, he called upon his running back seven times. This week against another stout defensive front, he called De’Lance Turner’s number a whopping six times. Where’s the run to pass balance that’s so crucial to keeping a defence honest?

Against Hamilton, the Redblacks finished the night with 234 yards of net offence and 15 first downs. They went 0-for-1 in the red zone thanks to the baffling decision to quarterback sneak the ball from the two-yard line with a quarterback literally taking his fourth and fifth career snaps.

And that was immediately following the exit of his starting right tackle, who was replaced by a backup defensive lineman. And instead of going for it on third and goal from Hamilton’s two-yard line, he elected for a field goal. Given all the struggles Ottawa’s had in moving the ball and getting into the red zone, why not hand it to your running back who averaged 4.8 yards per carry? Why not get your mobile quarterback, Evans, on the move and see if he can’t hit someone in the flats or dive into the end zone himself?

Like I asked last week, where were the adjustments to the blitz and pass rush? The Ticats continually sent pressure on second down that the Redblacks had no answer for. Why did Ottawa not feature more seven man protection schemes? Why not more screens? Although LaPolice dialled up some play-action and a handful of rollouts, things like sweeps or play-action reverses predictably failed because the offensive line was playing backups to the backups.

Of the Redblacks’ 14 possessions, eight resulted in punts, five in turnovers — three interceptions and two turnovers on downs — and one in a field goal, while eleven drives gained less than 20 yards.

This offence isn’t quite reaching Ottawa’s 2019 levels of ineptness, but at least that one had the excuse of being run by committee.

4) Shifty receiver Anthony Coombs was targeted three times in the first quarter, then ignored until the final two minutes of the game. Ryan Davis wound up with a pair of catches for 16 yards. Veterans R.J. Harris and Kenny Stafford made three and four catches respectively, for 49 and 31 yards. Nate Behar had a team-high five catches for 46 yards. Brendan Gillanders led Ottawa in YAC — yards after the catch — when Evans hit him in stride on a slant that went for a gain of 23 yards. Fullback Anthony Gosselin made his ninth career catch for five yards.

5) Another game, another new grouping of men on Ottawa’s offensive line. Dino Boyd, Jakub Szott, Andrew Pickett, Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Tyler Catalina were the Redblacks’ 11th combination of offensive lineman in as many games. Four of the five are first-year players. In a position where familiarity and continuity are the foundations of success, that turnover alone explains so much of the offensive woes ailing the team.

Compounding matters, Ottawa lost the entire right side of their line to injuries. Bushell-Beatty and Catalina were both out of the game by the second quarter. The only other offensive lineman dressed was 2020 eighth-round draft pick Ketel Asse, who stepped in at right tackle. Defensive lineman Stefan Charles traded in his No. 98 jersey for No. 68 and filled in at right guard.

The Redblacks have been incredibly unlucky, but once again injuries highlighted their poor game day roster management. This was the third time this season they’ve run into issues. Multiple times they’ve been forced to press their sixth, and last, lineman into action.

When Timothy Flanders got hurt against Saskatchewan, since no other running backs were dressed, returner DeVonte Dedmon filled in. When quarterbacks Dominique Davis and Matt Nichols both went down in a previous matchup versus the Ticats, Behar was forced under centre. And Saturday they needed to flip a defensive lineman to the other side of the trenches.

All this speaks to the wider issue as to how LaPolice and his coaching staff are filling out their game day rosters. Although I understand that none of their starting linebackers play special teams, I struggle to see how nine linebackers are a must, especially since it’s a position that rarely rotates guys in and out of the game, whereas a seventh offensive lineman isn’t necessary. Surely Bob Dyce’s cover units wouldn’t fall apart with one less ‘backer?

6) Horrible showing from Mike Benevides’ defence.

Coming into the game, the Ticats were averaging a league low 5.1 yards per first down play and against Ottawa they averaged 9.6.

Hamilton racked up 463 yards of net offence, 24 first downs and went 4-for-4 in the red zone. Benevides’ group was shredded in the air to the tune of 337 yards and an 89 percent completion rate. And on the ground, Hamilton averaged 6.4 yards per rush and totalled 135 yards.

Of Hamilton’s 14 possessions, seven gained at least 30 yards, seven resulted in punts, five in points and one in a turnover on downs.

Shoutout to Randal Evans, one of the few noticeable defenders who played hard for a full 60 minutes. He wound up with five tackles and a knockdown.

7) Richie Leone had a whale of a game, punting eight times for an average field position flip of 38.8 yards. Leone’s punts are even more impressive when you consider that three of the snaps he received were low. With Louis-Philippe Bourassa injuring himself in practice and now on the six-game injured list, Frederic Chagnon has taken over long snapping duties. He’ll need to be better going forward.

8) As for the rest of Dyce’s units, Lewis Ward made the only kick he attempted and the dangerous Brandon Banks was rendered irrelevant in the return game, with his longest of the night going for just 16 yards. Justin Howell led the way with two special teams tackles.

Terry Williams, filling in for the injured Dedmon, salvaged an otherwise poor performance with a 49-yard punt return in the fourth quarter. He fumbled twice and was guilty of trying too hard to make something happen, fielding kicks and running backwards trying to find the corner. Like Evans at quarterback though, Williams’ errors stem from his inexperience, not lack of talent. If Dedmon remains on the sidelines, Williams deserves the same opportunity to improve on the field, not the practice roster.

9) Two moments in the game, one early, and one late highlighted just how much the Ticats didn’t respect or fear the Redblacks. In a scoreless second quarter, they went for it on third and goal from Ottawa’s four-yard line. A phantom defensive pass interference call somehow was confirmed by the command centre and gifted them a new set of downs, so they scored anyways.

Late in the fourth quarter, up two by scores and 15 points, facing third and two from Ottawa’s 15-yard line, instead of kicking the chip shot field goal to go up by three scores and effectively seal the game, Hamilton again went for it. The reason that’s significant is that the Ticats were coming off of back-to-back losses in which they blew fourth quarter leads. Clearly there was absolutely no concern Ottawa could score twice in the final five minutes of the game had they turned the ball over on downs.

Sometimes people literally tell you what they think of you. Other times, their actions do.

10) Really odd and uncomfortable moment in the second quarter when Maleek Irons was injured. TSN aired unfiltered audio of him wheezing in pain as he was being treated by the medical staff. I get wanting to make the audience feel like they’re there and on the field with the players, but that was unnecessary.

Speaking of weird TSN stuff, it took checking in with an Ottawa source to confirm that it was actually Stefan Charles donning No. 68 and playing right guard for the Redblacks. That was required because the broadcast never mentioned specifically who was wearing the jersey with no nameplate.

In a now-deleted tweet replying to a fan, TSN’s Matthew Scianitti said the broadcast never named No. 68 because he couldn’t find out who the lineman was during the game. Whoever he was asking on the Redblacks sideline wouldn’t tell him. Why? Were they worried Hamilton might expose him? His play wasn’t noticeably worse than anyone around him, that’s for sure.

11) With the loss, the Redblacks are officially eliminated from playoff contention. There will be no post-season action for R-Nation to enjoy for the second consecutive season and third year in a row. Mercifully, Ottawa fans will only have to endure three more games in this uninspiring and frustrating season.

There will be plenty of time for post-mortems in the weeks to come, but it’s safe to say this is not how anyone in the nation’s capital imagined the season unfolding.

The team’s remaining games are nothing more than extended tryouts for the 2022 squad, for rookies and veterans alike. After a season as disappointing as this, it would be very foolish for anyone to assume they have a roster spot secured next season. And if in the process, the Redblacks can throw a wrench into someone’s plans for a home playoff date, all the better.

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