Duck lays an egg (& 13 other thoughts on Ottawa losing to the Argos)

In their final home game of the season, the Ottawa Redblacks fell to the visiting Toronto Argonauts by a score of 23-20 in front of 18,644 die-hard members of R-Nation.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:




1) Early in the week, head coach Paul LaPolice gave an interview on TSN1200 in which he stated he wasn’t looking to use the team’s last two games to evaluate players for 2022 because the only thing he cared about was winning a game.

Following that line of thinking, LaPolice must have believed that Devlin “Duck” Hodges was an upgrade at the quarterback position over Caleb Evans. If that’s true it’s the latest example of LaPolice misevaluating the talent on his roster.

Evans wasn’t perfect in his six starts — throwing for 1106 yards, five touchdowns and nine interceptions and rushing for 286 yards, third best among all quarterbacks — but he did show signs of growth each week.

It’s not unfair to say that had Evans been under centre against the Argos, Ottawa likely emerges from Saturday afternoon’s game with a victory. Although Hodges didn’t cost the team a win — he recorded zero turnovers — he also did absolutely nothing to help them win either.

Duck looked deep exactly once — and to his credit, it would have been a completion if not for an R.J. Harris drop — and otherwise seemed content to make short throws or throw the ball away. It can be argued that the ex-Steelers’ throwing mechanics are more polished than Evans, but he was clearly less mobile and off-target on a handful of throws. Hodges also did a good job of moving around the pocket to avoid pressure, which was to be expected give his previous pro experience.

The 25-year old completed 36 percent of his passes versus Toronto, finishing the game with a stat line of 8-of-22 for 90 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. A quarter of his yardage came on a single play; a 25-yard hitch pass to Marco Dubois. To be totally fair, Hodges should’ve finished the night with ten completions, but for the above mentioned Harris drop and another in the fourth quarter by Anthony Coombs.

Given the hype among the fan base and many in the media, it’s hard to see Duck’s performance as anything other than underwhelming. Whatever he was supposed to do better than Evans, he didn’t. Who LaPolice chooses to start for the season finale in Montreal two weeks from now remains to be seen, but if Evans wasn’t the guy this week, it seems unlikely he’ll get the nod after the bye.

2) Over the past few weeks I’ve criticized LaPolice’s play-calling because instead of taking a balanced approach with a rookie quarterback under centre, the run game was largely ignored. Against Toronto, Ottawa did indeed keep things fairly even, calling 17 runs to 22 passing plays.

Unfortunately, it seemed to backfire because although the run game was humming in the opening 30 minutes of play, rushing the ball in the second half seemed to benothing more than wasting plays. The Redblacks racked up 135 rushing yards in the first half. In the second half they managed eight yards on five carries.

In fact, that was how the offence as a whole went. Ottawa put up 183 yards of offence in the first two quarters and just 38 in the second half. If not for DeVonte Dedmon’s kick off return touchdown, the Redblacks would have scored zero points over the game’s final 30 minutes.

The Redblacks averaged 4.8 yards per play and managed only 13 first downs against Toronto. Their lack of production on second down was especially crippling, as they averaged 3.9 yards per play, converting 4-of-18 second down opportunities, for a conversion rate of 22 percent.

Of their 14 offensive possessions, three featured more than five plays. Eleven drives gained less than 20 yards. Seven gained five yards or less and one resulted in a nine-yard net loss. Only a single drive gained more than two first downs.

Most damning of all, LaPolice’s offence turned four turnovers, including a fumble recovery that set the Redblacks up on the Argos’ 8 yard line, into six points. With production like that, is it any wonder the team is 2-11?

Time of possession isn’t a great indicator of how an offence performed because at the end of the day, if you’re scoring points who cares how quickly/slowly you do it, but when you lose the time of possession battle as soundly the Redblacks did versus Toronto — 24:36 to 35:24 — it negatively impacts the defence, which was evidenced by the Argos putting together multiple long scoring drives in the fourth quarter.

Through thirteen games, Ottawa’s offence has scored 11 touchdowns in 191 possessions. Only Saskatchewan in 1979 (15 touchdowns in 16 games) and B.C. in 1954 (11 in 16) have averaged less than one per game. Barring an offence explosion in their last game, LaPolice’s offence is about to join some historically ugly company.

3) A big reason why the offence has failed to score points has been its lack of aggressiveness. Here’s three examples from yesterday’s game.

In the 1st quarter, following Shaheed Salmon’s forced fumble and recovery, the Redblacks took over on Toronto’s eight-yard line.

Following a short Hodges’ run and an incomplete pass, Ottawa was faced with a third-and-goal from the four-yard line. Given how the season has gone, LaPolice could’ve sent a message to his players and fans by going for it. Instead, Lewis Ward trotted out for a field goal.

In the final minute of the first half, Ottawa got the ball back with 49 seconds left and still had a timeout. Instead of pushing the ball down the field in hopes of setting up — at worst — a field goal attempt, two Timothy Flanders runs meant Ottawa punted the ball back to Toronto with 20 seconds left.

Lastly — and perhaps the most debatable of these three examples — in the fourth quarter, down three at the three minute warning, the ball was on Ottawa’s 37-yard line and it was third-and-eight. Given that the defence had just given up two long scoring drives, going for it would have taken some pressure off that unit. Instead, Ottawa punted the ball away.

What these examples serve to highlight is that when provided multiple opportunities to be aggressive, Ottawa’s offence continually chooses to play things conservatively and safe. In a season that’s been effectively over for weeks, you have to ask, why?

4) It was a tale of two halves for running back Timothy Flanders. Starting his first game since Week 10, Flanders seemed re-energized and displayed a burst that had been lacking all season. In the game’s first two quarters he ran downhill and broke a number of tackles. Three of his nine first half runs resulted in gains of 10+ yards.

In the second half, his runs went for 8 yards, -3 yards, 1 yard, 0 yards and 2 yards. And it’s not as if Toronto suddenly decided to sell out to stop the run. What changed is that the burst seemed to disappear.

Still, Flanders finished the game with 14 carries for 95 yards, bringing his season average up from 3.7 yards per carry to 4.1 yards per carry.

5) When the quarterback only completes eight passes, it means nobody in the receiving corps is going to stand out, but what we can examine is who was targeted, as it provides us a glimpse into the game plan.

LaPolice wanted Anthony Coombs in Ottawa because he believed he could be the next Nic Demski. His five targets resulted in zero catches which once again confirms what R-Nation already knew from the previously twelve games; he’s no Demski.

For whatever reason, the dynamic Ryan Davis had exactly zero targets in the second half of the game, making both of his two catches for 21 yards in the first half.

Speaking of barely being targeted, both Kenny Stafford and Nate Behar turned their single targets into 10-yard catches. R.J. Harris had two catches for 27 yards and one crushing drop.

As much as it’s on the quarterback to spread the ball around, where are the plays designed to get the ball into the hands of the team’s playmakers? Because believe it or not, Ottawa does indeed have playmakers, they just aren’t being called upon or put in positions to succeed. Where is the creativity?

Behar is averaging 11.4 yards per catch. Stafford is averaging 15.4. Davis 10.9 per reception. And yet they received a combined four targets? It doesn’t make sense.

6) The 13th different offensive line combination used by Ottawa in as many games finally provided an average performance. From left to right, Ottawa lined up with Mark Korte at left tackle, Jakub Szott at left guard, Andrew Pickett at centre, Ketel Asse at right guard, and Tyler Catalina at right tackle.

The group got into a groove running the ball early, opening up some huge lanes for Flanders to plow through. They also did a fairly solid job pass blocking, and were aided by Hodges’ willingness to not force things and instead throw the ball away. Although they still did give up three sacks, overall it was a much better performance from a unit that has been an Achilles’ heel most of the season.

Catalina wound up leaving the game with an injury in the fourth quarter which meant that Asse shifted to right tackle and rookie Jaylan Guthrie came in at right guard. Who knows if that means in Game 14 the team uses yet another new combination. You’d have to think that would be some kind of record, albeit the kind you don’t want to be associated with.

7) It’s weird to write that the defence wasn’t very good in a game where they forced four turnovers, but ultimately it’s true. Mike Benevides’ unit was extremely opportunistic against the Argos, but the underlying numbers aren’t great.

Yet again, the group gave up 400+ yards of net offence. Yet again they allowed an opponent to rush for over 100 yards on the ground; 138 to be exact. Of Toronto’s 15 offensive possessions, eight gained 25+ yards and three of the final four drives gained 88, 58 and 35 yards respectively. That resulted in the game tying points, game winning points and a drive to kill the clock and seal the win.

Although there were long stretches of play in which the unit imposed their will, as has been the case all season long, in the game’s biggest moments, the defence came up small. Just like in Montreal a few weeks back, when Ottawa most needed to get the Argos off the field, they instead allowed a 12 play, 85-yard touchdown drive and the ensuing two-point convert to tie things up.

On their very next possession, Toronto put together a  nine play, 58-yard drive to kick the game-winning field goal. And when there was one final opportunity for the defence to make a play and give their offence one more shot, they instead allowed the Argos to gain 30 yards on a third-and-two with 57 seconds left. That right there ended the game.

None of this is to say Ottawa’s defence was horrible, as there were some spectacular individual efforts. Justin Howell and Avery Williams each finished the game with eight tackles. Abdul Kanneh had two knockdowns and a near pick. Brandin Dandridge made his fourth interception in his seventh career game. Adam Auclair was strong in coverage. Cleyon Laing routinely collapsed the pocket. Furthermore, the unit as a whole did an excellent job of making McLeod Bethel-Thompson feel pressured. Officially they only notched two sacks, but he was rarely comfortable when he dropped back to pass. The Redblacks also got their hands on a number of passes, knocking down half a dozen balls.

Benevides’ unit plays hard, there’s no doubt about that, so the question becomes, do they lack killer instinct to close out games, or are they simply wearing down from being on the field too much? Or are they becoming disheartened when the turnovers they force aren’t taken advantage of? It’s not every day the defence forces four turnovers and comes out on the losing side of things.

8) Fresh off inking an extension that keeps him in the nation’s capital until 2022, kicker Lewis Ward had the worst day of his professional career, missing three kicks from 43, 47 and 48 yards out. Is this any reason to panic or worry? Absolutely not. Ward remains one of the game’s most reliable kickers, he just had an off night. It happens to everyone and I fully expect him to bounce back with a vengeance.

Speaking of the kicking game, Richie Leone had yet another game with a 40-yard net average per punt. As is always the case, a good punt only matters if the kick coverage does its job and in that phase of the game, defensive lineman Kene Onyeka utterly dominated. The Carleton product registered a game high four special teams tackles. Talk about hustle from the big man.

9) I’m running out of superlatives to describe how good DeVonte Dedmon is. Not only did he break Gizmo Williams’ record of games needed to score five career kick returns — 15 to 18 — he was yet again a total menace with the ball in his hands.

In addition to his 100-yard kick off return, Dedmon also had an 81 yard punt return wiped out by an illegal block. He still finished the game averaging 15 yards per punt return.

The 25-year old is Ottawa’s most dangerous weapon and intern GM Jeremy Snyder and assistant GM Jean Marc Edme deserve full kudos for inking the soon to be 2021 Most Outstanding Special Teams Player to an extension. Dedmon likely would have garnered NFL interest this off-season, but R-Nation can rest easy for at least another season knowing they have a true game-breaker handling kick return duties.

10) Not a banner night from the Command Centre, but then again I guess that’s to be expected. In the third quarter, Abdul Kanneh seemed to get his hands under a Bethel-Thompson pass, scoop if off the turf and return it for a significant gain. Since all turnovers are automatically reviewed, the Command Centre got involved. I’ll concede that it was close, but given that TSN had no definitive angle showing clear evidence to overturn the call on the field, which was an interception, the play should have stood. Instead, it was ruled incomplete. If conclusive footage exists that shows the ball hitting the ground, TSN certainly didn’t have it.

Later in the third quarter, Chandler Worthy returned a missed Ward field goal 47 yards, but clearly stepped out of bounds as he tip-toed down the sidelines. I say clearly because TSN’s broadcast had an image of his left foot entirely on the white paint. But when LaPolice challenged, the Command Centre chose to stick with the call on the field and the return stood.

If the Command Centre isn’t using TSN’s footage to review plays, what exactly then are they looking at?

11) Full credit to TD Place staff for being topical and promoting safety. Aaron Rodgers is a joke and deserves to be treated as such.

12) A big part of the reason fans continue to flock to Lansdowne to support what has been a truly awful product on the field for the past two season is because of the work OSEG puts into the community. Gestures like recognizing the vital and exhausting work done by healthcare workers during the pandemic go a long way.

13) Toronto’s recent dominance over Ottawa is impressive. Since the Redblacks joined the league in 2014, the Argos have won 13 of 17 games against them and are 8-1 over the last nine contests.

With the loss, the Redblacks’ record drops to 2-11. They aren’t yet guaranteed to finish last in the standings only because Edmonton has two games in hand and has looked equally, if not more, inept.

Ottawa is on a bye this week and they’ll be busy using it to game plan for their last match of the 2021 season, a trip to Montreal. The Redblacks will be playing for pride, the Alouettes for playoff seeding. It remains to be seen if LaPolice and his staff treat the game as an opportunity to get an extended look at young players and potential free agents or if they instead focus instead on playing their starters in hopes of getting that elusive third win.

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