Ottawa’s young defenders put on a show (& 12 other thoughts on the preseason finale)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

When the Ottawa Redblacks headed to Montreal for their final preseason game, they left those who already showed enough to make the team at home.

For everyone else, Friday night’s bout against the Alouettes was a final opportunity to impress the coaching staff, or at least make the front office’s decisions about who to give a roster spot to much more difficult.

Some players rose to the moment, likely earning at least a practice roster position. For others, the only thing they secured was a plane ticket home.

Here are all my thoughts on Ottawa dropping their preseason finale 27-26 to the Alouettes:

1) With Jeremiah Masoli held out of action, second-year pro Caleb Evans got the start. Following last week’s underwhelming performance, Evans was under a bit of pressure to show more, thanks to rookie Tyrie Adams’ strong debut.

Evans played the entire first half, leading seven drives. Four of those drives ended in points, but were aided by excellent starting field position thanks to a handful of defensive turnovers.

When Evans wasn’t forcing things, the plays were positive. For the most part, he quickly went through his reads, made smart decisions and hit his guys in stride.

The only time that didn’t happen was a deep throw into double coverage in the end zone. Evans floated a jump ball that was easily picked off.

On one hand, you have to appreciate a quarterback taking a chance and trusting his receiver to make a play. On the other, he can’t be careless with the ball when already in field goal range.

His offensive line provided him with a clean pocket but when he needed to, Evans was able to efficiently buy time with his feet. He finished the night with a final stat line of five completions on 13 attempts for 65 yards and the above-mentioned interception, but those stats are deceiving as his receivers dropped four passes. He also scrambled three times for 19 yards.

2) Tyrie Adams played the third quarter and one drive in the fourth and continued to look sharp, although by that point in the game Montreal was mainly fielding backups.

Like Evans, Adams was afforded a clean pocket to work from, minus the one play when running back Devonte Wiliams failed to get in front of a blitzing defender and allowed him to hammer Adams, causing a fumble.

Adams only attempted five passes over the course of the five drives he led, but one of those throws showed off his arm strength and resulted in a 47-yard completion to Brandon Arconado. Adams nearly hooked up with Arconado last week against the Argos on a similar play.

Adams finished the night with three completions for 67 yards and an interception, which came on an underthrown ball to a streaking Terry Williams.

But what really impressed against the Alouettes was how Adams used his legs. The six-foot-one, 180-pound quarterback fearlessly took off multiple times, finishing the game with four carries for 64 yards. No play better showcased his speed and shiftiness than a 36-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw at the start of the fourth quarter.

I’m not sure Adams was so significantly superior to Evans as to overtake him on the depth chart, but he certainly did enough to ensure he won’t be going home any time soon.

3) Quarterback David Moore didn’t play last week against Toronto but was given four drives to close out the game. His numbers weren’t eye-popping — 4-of-6 for 90 yards — but I was impressed with the zip on his passes. Like Masoli, Evans and Adams, Moore also used his legs effectively to avoid defenders.

It’s quite clear Burke and head coach Paul LaPolice want their quarterbacks to be mobile. What remains to be seen is if they choose to stash one or two on the practice roster.

4) Jackson Bennett didn’t make the trip to Montreal, which means the Canadian back showed enough last week to guarantee his roster spot. With William Powell still yet to even practice, that left American rookies Devonte Williams and Byron Marshall as Ottawa’s running backs against the Alouettes.

Although the duo have completely different styles — Williams is more shifty whereas Marshall is a more of a powerful, downhill runner — both showed well against Montreal. Williams turned seven carries into 51 yards, averaging 7.3 yards per carry, and Marshall had ten carries for 48 yards.

It’s hard to tell what Ottawa will do at the position. Powell was signed in the off-season to be the starter, but the 34-year-old has yet to even practice with the Redblacks. It’s one thing for a veteran to be held out of preseason games, it’s another for him to be on the sideline all training camp and be expected to go from zero reps to starting duties in the regular season.

5) The Redblacks are deep at receiver and I’m not sure anyone who suited up yesterday really helped their case. We got our first look at Canadian receivers Shaq Johnson and Llevi Noel in red and black. Johnson had one catch for 20 yards and Noel had a drop, turning two targets into zero catches.

Speaking of drops, rookies Siaosi Mariner, Justin Hardy and R.J. Harris all failed to hang onto passes that hit them in the hands, killing drives. Some may have raised their eyebrows at Harris even playing, but it makes sense when you consider he missed a good chunk of camp with visa issues that delayed his arrival in Canada.

The most impressive reception of the night was definitely Arconado’s 47-yard snag. He’s got speed and for the second week in a row, had no issues blowing the top off the defence.

Ottawa’s got a lot of guys vying for a handful of spots in a crowded receiving corps, so it’ll be interesting to see who survives cutdown day.

6) With the majority of the starting offensive line left behind in Ottawa, the Redblacks went young in the trenches.  Boise State alum Uzoma Osuji started at left tackle, 2022 draft picks Zack Pelehos and Cyrille Hogan-Saindon were at left guard and centre, Ketel Asse was at right guard and Dino Boyd rounded things off at right tackle.

That unit was quickly juggled — Asse took reps at tackle for example — but despite the rotation of bodies up front, as a whole, Ottawa’s offensive line was quite solid. They consistently gave the quarterbacks clean pockets to step up into and were quick off the ball in running situations.

Like receiver, the offensive line is another position where the Redblacks are deep. Unlike the pass catchers, most of the big men up front played well, leaving Burke with some tough decisions to make.

7) The story of the night was easily Ottawa’s young defensive backs feasting against most of Montreal’s starting offensive unit. The Redblacks have a lot of veterans in their crowded secondary, but rookie Hakeem Bailey’s two interceptions and a knockdown cannot be ignored.

Other defensive players who had strong showings were defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin — he collapsed the pocket a few times, notched a sack and had five tackles, including one for a loss — linebacker Troy Young, who made four defensive tackles and a special teams tackle, and defensive Marloshawn Franklin, who also had five tackles.

8) Perhaps the most fascinating storyline of the pre-season is Ottawa’s all-Canadian battle at safety. Fourth-year pro Justin Howell didn’t dress for the game. Some might read that as him having secured the starting job. Veteran Antoine Pruneau did play in Montreal, but at another position — more on that in a minute.

That left the much-hyped Daniel Valente and Alonzo Addae significant opportunities to show what they bring to the table. It’s only pre-season but it certainly seems like both rookies come as advertised.

Valente finished the game with a pair of tackles and an interception that came from an excellent read and reaction to the play unfolding in front of him.

Although it was only an exhibition game, context matters. Valente’s pick wasn’t a fourth-quarter interception off of Davis Alexander — no offence to him — but rather a first-quarter pick off of Vernon Adams, Montreal’s presumed Week One starter.

As for Addae, his interception came as a result of a tip drill and being in the right place at the time.

The West Virginia product also had a crushing hit to force an incompletion and another pass knockdown.

Regardless of who winds up assuming the starting safety job, it’s clear Ottawa has a pair of talented youngsters who will push for playing time.

9) As much as it was shocking to see Antoine Pruneau not only dressed for the second pre-season game but actually on the field and making tackles in the second quarter, it does kind of make sense.

As with any player, the more you can do, the better your odds of making the team. Pruneau is a fan favourite, an original Redblack and a founding member of the French Mafia, but as noted above, he’s being pushed hard at the safety position.

Having him take some reps at linebacker — a role he hasn’t filled since his rookie season — is a way of showing the coaching staff that should that be required of him at any point in the season, he’s capable of handling those duties.

Although Pruneau might not wind up in his typical starting safety position, the veteran should still have a spot on the team. His experience is invaluable, he still diagnoses plays quickly, and he remains an excellent special teamer.

10) Hats off to Jose Maltos for his impressive performance. The Mexican kicker went 5/5 on field goals attempted, splitting the uprights from 38, 31, 37, 18 and 13 yards out. He’s not stealing Lewis Ward’s job but Ottawa’s brass has to feel a bit better knowing that if disaster strikes, they have a capable backup they can rely on.

He also handled most of the punting duties, averaging 45.5 yards per punt, although as a result of leaky coverage teams, his overall net field position gain per kick was just 27 yards.

In terms of the return game, oddly enough nobody fielded a punt so nobody on Ottawa was credited with a return.

Terry Williams and Devonte Williams split kickoff duties, but the most dangerous-looking return of the night goes to Devonte Williams for his 30-yard scamper following a missed Alouette field goal. That said, as much as special teams coordinator Bob Dyce will appreciate the return, I’m sure he wasn’t in love with Williams carrying the ball like a loaf of bread, away from his body, while he ran.

11) It may have only been pre-season action, but the roughly 11,000 on hand in Montreal certainly did their part when their team was on defence. They were noticeably loud throughout the broadcast transmission.

That is to say, you could hear them whenever the in-stadium siren wasn’t drowning out their cheers and any possibility of focusing or forming coherent thoughts.

12) You never want to lose a game, but when it comes to the preseason, final scores are secondary to player evaluation.

By the end of today (June 4), teams must trust trim their squads to 45 players on the active roster (two quarterbacks, 21 Canadians, 20 Americans, and one Global) and 10 players on the practice roster, excluding those on the one and six-game injured lists.

That means that at least 25 players will be sent packing.

Those who took the field in Montreal did so fully aware it was their last chance to state their case. By Saturday evening, Burke and LaPolice will have set their initial roster for next week’s regular-season opener in Winnipeg.

The good thing is that Ottawa got through training camp and their pair of preseason games avoiding catastrophic injuries; while you can’t win a Grey Cup in the pre-season, you can certainly make it a hell of a lot harder to win one.

The next time Ottawa takes the field, it’ll be for real. And there will be no easing into things. With their season opener coming in Winnipeg, against the reigning Grey Cup champions, LaPolice will have to have his squad sharp and fully prepared if they want to upset the favourites and send a message to the rest of the league.

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).