Ottawa lets Winnipeg off the hook (& 10 other thoughts on the Redblacks losing to the Blue Bombers)

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

In their first meeting since July 19th, 2019 — a span of 1,056 days — the Ottawa Redblacks had the back-to-back Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers on the ropes. They were quickly reminded that when you’re on the road and up against a team boasting a 19-1 record in their previous 20 home games, the margin for error is non-existent.

Whether it was dropping surefire touchdowns and potential pick-sixes, poor clock management, or sloppy tackling on the game’s final drive, had Ottawa simply been able to make one more play, the final score would have rewarded the better team for the majority of the night.

Instead, the Redblacks drop to 0-1 after falling 19-17 to the Blue Bombers.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) If you don’t think watching highlights — or rather lowlights for him — of the 108th Grey Cup during the pre-game banner unveiling had Jeremiah Masoli fired up, you must not have been paying attention.

The veteran quarterback came out slinging it and even with the drop of a perfectly placed deep bomb that hit his receiver in stride, the message was sent. Masoli torched a stout Winnipeg defence, completing 70 percent of his passes to nine different receivers. He had four completions of 30+ yards, reflecting the ease with which he was able to push the ball down the field.

If not for the above-mentioned opening drive drop, Masoli’s final stat line of 24-of-34 for 380 yards, a touchdown and an interception would have been even more impressive.

In addition to showing off his big arm, the 33-year-old pivot did an excellent job throwing on the run and using his legs to escape pressure when the pocket broke down. He scrambled twice for 10 yards but his real talent wasn’t moving the chains with his legs, it was buying time for his receivers to get open.

Overall, in his first start as a Redblack, Masoli was everything R-Nation hoped he could be.

2) The offence on display in Ottawa’s season opener was much more explosive than anything Paul LaPolice orchestrated in 2021. Much of that is a direct result of him simply having more weapons — and a capable triggerman in Masoli — at his disposal.

There was a healthy mix of run and pass plays and LaPolice effectively used play-action, rollouts, screens and other backfield misdirection to temper the Bombers’ fierce pass rush.

Up against arguably the best defence in the league, the Redblacks racked up 431 yards of net offence and 18 first downs. LaPolice’s squad averaged 9.5 yards per first-down play, and 6.1 yards per second-down play, which was a large reason why Ottawa had a second-down conversion rate of 52%.

In theory, that should have meant plenty of long, sustained drives. In actuality though, 11 of the Redblacks’ 14 drives lasted five plays or less. Five possessions ended in points — one touchdown, three field goals and a rouge — five ended in two and outs, one with an interception and another on a turnover on downs.

3) It’s never really fair to point to one particular moment in a game as costing the team a win, but two negative drives severely impacted Ottawa’s chances of winning.

On the final possession of the first half, the Redblacks marched the ball down to Winnipeg’s 36-yard line with 53 seconds left on the clock. It took the offence 25 seconds to line up for a quarterback sneak, which they converted. By the time they snapped the ball again, there were 17 seconds left on the clock. Jaelon Acklin’s 23-yard reception got the ball down to the 11-yard line, but time ran out before Ottawa could run another play.

How did neither LaPolice nor Masoli — nor anyone else on the offence, for that matter — call a timeout at any point in the final minute? At worst, the Redblacks should have come away with three points, which would have been quite useful considering that they lost by two.

The other possession that effectively set up their defeat was the team’s second to last drive of the game. Clinging to a one-point lead, Ottawa had the ball on their own 30-yard line with 2:27 remaining in the 4th quarter. A couple of first downs would have milked the clock and given them the win but instead, Ottawa went conservative with their play calls when they could least afford it. A first-down run for zero gain and a five-yard out where the receiver ran out of bounds meant only 29 seconds came off the clock.

That’s not how you beat the champs at home.

4) In his first career CFL start, running back Devonte Williams turned nine carries into 33 yards, with his longest gain of the night being six yards. Williams made a number of sharp cuts and showed an ability to make guys miss, but was always in tough against a stout Bombers’ front seven. Canadian Jackson Bennett spelled Williams and although his more physical style of running seemed more appropriate for the type of game that it was, he was given just four carries.

5) During their 14 games together in Hamilton, Masoli looked Jaelon Acklin’s way 4.4 times per game. In their first game together in Ottawa, Acklin turned eight targets into six catches and a game-high 143 yards. If not for a drop, he likely would’ve added another 80 yards and a touchdown to that stat line.

As for the rest of the receiving corps, Darvin Adam’s “homecoming” resulted in seven catches for 71 yards. Canadians Nate Behar and Marco Dubois each hauled in a long bomb and finished the night with 50 and 54 yards respectively. Shaq Johnson made four catches for 43 yards and a touchdown.

NFL veteran and CFL rookie Justin Hardy turned six targets into a pair of catches for 16 yards.

6) Facing a tough test in their first game together, Ottawa’s revamped offensive line did as well as could be expected. From left to right, they lined up with American Ucambre Williams at tackle, Canadians Hunter Steward, Darius Ciraco and Jacob Ruby in the interior and American Dino Boyd at tackle.

Part of what makes Winnipeg’s front seven so difficult to block is that they rarely put their hands down, meaning that the opposing offensive lineman need to simultaneously read the rush as the ball is snapped to figure out who’s actually blitzing and then determine who’s blocking who in the blink of an eye. That becomes even more difficult when the group isn’t familiar with each other yet — as is the case with Ottawa.

Still, considering that they dropped back to pass protect 34 times, conceding a single sack isn’t a bad night’s work at all.

7) If Mike Benevides’ defence can turn in more performances like that, the Redblacks will quickly find themselves in the win column.

Ottawa limited Winnipeg to 289 total yards and a 40 percent conversion rate on second down. The few drives that did end in points were aided by penalties. The Redblacks failed to register a sack but still did a good job of pressuring Zach Collaros and repeatedly forcing him to throw before he was ready.

Of Winnipeg’s 13 offensive possessions, seven failed to pick up a first down, ten lasted six plays or less, four resulted in points and one in a turnover.

Despite not starting at safety, Canadian Antoine Pruneau had a team-high seven tackles and a pass knockdown. Pruneau got significant playing time at the halfback position normally occupied by Abdul Kanneh, who started the game but left with an injury. In fact, Pruneau nearly ended the game by getting his hands on a Collaros pass on Winnipeg’s final drive, yet failed to secure the pick.

Patrick Levels made six tackles. Frankie Griffin and Cleyon Laing had four tackles apiece. Money Hunter made three tackles and probably should have had a pick-six. Overall, Benevides’ unit was physical and arrived at the ballcarrier with speed, making hard gang-tackles. Justin Howell in particular made some crushing hits.

That said, there was some sloppy tackling on Winnipeg’s final drive, especially when Dru Brown was under centre. Getting carved up by allowing a backup to enter the game completely cold in the last minute and go 3-for-3 for 51 yards passing to set up the game-winning points is far from ideal.

8) After barely playing in the pre-season, it was great to see Lewis Ward and Richie Leone in fine form. Ward nailed kicks from 17, 39 and 43 yards out, while Leone punted six times for 302 yards, averaging a 38.5-yard field position flip per kick.

Terry Williams had a decent game fielding returns, with his longest punt return coming in at 13 yards and his longest kickoff return being 29 yards.

9) For my money, Dustin Nielsen and Duane Forde are TSN’s best play-by-play crew. Their mix of enthusiasm, passion for the Canadian game and ability to know when to let the play and crowd reaction speak for itself is second to none.

10) Although they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, by playing the defending champs tough in their house LaPolice’s team has served notice to the league that they aren’t just paper warriors. The roster GM Shawn Burke assembled in the off-season is legit and will need to be reckoned with.

R-Nation is used to frustrating losses — see 2019 and 2021 — but this particular game stings a bit more because, for the first time in a while, Ottawa clearly outplayed their opponent. This was a game the Redblacks should have won. Period.

Making mistakes that take points off the board — be it a dropped touchdown or interception, or atrocious clock management — will always come back to haunt you, doubly so when playing a highly experienced squad like the Blue Bombers.

Players, coaches and fans will rue the missed opportunity to start the season off with a win, but the truth of the matter is the Redblacks did plenty of things right, which shouldn’t be overshadowed by their costly mistakes.

Thankfully, they’ll soon have a chance to wash this bitter taste out of their mouths — and flip the script, per se — with Winnipeg heading to TD Place next Friday night to complete the home and home.

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).