LaProblem? Poor play-calling dooms Redblacks & 10 other thoughts on losing to Calgary

Photo courtesy: Ottawa Redblacks

Without their head coach or starting running back, the Calgary Stampeders came into the nation’s capital on Friday night and failed to score an offensive touchdown, but still defeated the Ottawa Redblacks by a score of 17-3 at TD Place. Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) There’s no denying that Caleb Evans looked like a shell of the guy who was named a CFL top performer in Week 8. Against the Stampeders, the second-year quarterback didn’t see the field well, rushed through his progressions at times and several of poor throws.

And yet, for all his faults, Evans was hung out to dry by appalling play-calling — more on that in a minute — and teammates who failed to do the basics of their jobs. Multiple receivers dropped passes that hit them in the hands.

Although some will put the blame for the turnover squarely on Evans’ shoulders, Calgary had blitzed on the play where he threw his interception and Darvin Adams was running the hot route. For whatever reason, a few seconds into the play he simply… stopped running. When Evans correctly identified the blitz and threw the hot route, it wound up as an easy pick-six since Adams failed to continue moving his feet.

There were other plays following incompletions where TSN’s cameras caught Evans gesturing to his receivers as if they had run the wrong routes. It’s nearly the halfway point of the season, these kinds of breakdowns in communication shouldn’t be happening.

Before being pulled in the third quarter, the 24-year-old completed just 10-of-21 pass attempts for 66 yards and an interception. He ran the ball twice; once on a designed run, and once on a quarterback sneak.

2) Over two years after he originally signed with the team, Nick Arbuckle took his first meaningful snaps as a Redblack in relief of Evans. His first plays happened to be a pair of handoffs which led to a two-and-out. So much for the jolt that supposedly comes from switching quarterbacks, eh?

Nick Arbuckle-Ottawa RedBlacks-5aug2022-Photo: Scott Grant

Arbuckle’s final stat line looks good — 17-of-23 for 186 yards — but it’s deceiving. By the time he came into the game, Calgary was more than content to let him bleed the clock by playing pitch-and-catch for short gains. He also threw two interceptions.

I have no idea who starts under centre next week versus the Elks, but it won’t matter if the play-calling remains the same.

3) Speaking of Ottawa’s attack, after two weeks of significant improvement from the offence, head coach and offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice called arguably his worst game of the season.

What was the game plan exactly?

Last week the run-to-pass ratio was nearly perfectly balanced, which made the Redblacks’ play-action deadly. Before Evans got pulled in the third quarter, LaPolice had handed the ball off to his running backs just five times, while dialling up 21 passes. Despite Evans being extremely effective using his legs in recent weeks — carrying the ball 15 times for 83 yards over the previous two games –, there was exactly one designed quarterback run called. How is that possible?

On top of having no run game to support his young quarterback, Ottawa’s receivers rarely ran deep. Instead, almost every play featured the majority — if not all — receivers running routes short of the first down sticks. That allowed Calgary’s defence to cheat low and smother the short routes Ottawa kept running.

Last I checked, Darvin Adams, Ryan Davis, Jaelon Acklin and Terry Williams have plenty of speed. Why is it that none were stretching the field? I understand the logic behind sending hitch passes their way — they can make people miss in space — but it’s a waste to constantly be throwing them the ball when they’re moving laterally instead of vertically down the field. How does it take until the fourth quarter for the league’s leading receiver, Acklin, to record a reception? How does Williams not merit a single target, even if only a deep shot to keep the defence honest?

Before Calgary decided to relax when up by three scores, Ottawa had 13 possessions. Of those drives, the longest of the night went 30 yards. 10 of those drives went for less than 10 yards.

Sure, the Redblacks’ final three possessions went “marching” — amassing 52, 67 and 51 yards — but I use the term loosely. To reiterate, it’s not like something clicked into place. Rather it was that Calgary was content to no longer contest the five to ten-yard slants, digs and outs the Redblacks ran all game.

Ottawa finished the night with an inflated 282 yards of offence, thanks to their final few possessions. On top of averaging just 2.7 yards per second down play, the offence went 0-for-3 in the red zone. They continue to fail at the most fundamental of tasks. Given two attempts to pick up a single yard for a fresh set of downs, a CFL offence should never turn the ball over. It’s inexplicable.

What it ultimately boils down to is that yet again, Ottawa’s offence cost the team a game they should have won. When the defence doesn’t give up a touchdown, you should win. Period.

There are not many ways to overhaul an offence mid-season, but changes have to be made. With each passing week, OSEG should be kicking themselves for not finding a way to get Khari Jones in the building as an offensive consultant. Clearly, LaPolice needs help. Perhaps it’s not for nothing that most of the top teams in the standings don’t have their head coaches as their offensive coordinators.

4) For the second consecutive game, William Powell and Jackson Bennett split reps. The veteran American finished with four carries for 26 yards and the young Canadian managed to churn out 30 yards on six carries. It must have felt great for the section full of the former Gee-Gees’ family and friends — who have been at every home game — to finally see him get some carries at TD Place.

Jackson Bennett-Ottawa RedBlacks-5aug2022-Photo: Scott Grant

Given that the duo averaged 6.5 yards and 5 yards per carry respectively, it’s puzzling why they weren’t given more touches.

5) Ryan Davis’ night perfectly summarizes the play-calling. The 25-year-old second-year pro was targeted nine times and made seven catches… for 35 yards.

As for the rest of the receiving corps, Acklin, coming off three straight 100+ yard games only recorded his first reception in the fourth quarter and finished the game with three catches for 28 yards.

Darvin Adams had a game-high 12 targets but finished with just five catches. He had a second down drop that killed a drive early on and for whatever reason, failed to run his route in the third quarter, leading to a pick-six. Canadian Nate Behar made seven catches for 78 yards. Terry Williams was not targeted.

6) Not only did Mike Benevides’ defence keep Calgary out of the end zone, but they also held Bo Levi Mitchell to a measly 137 passing yards and forced a turnover to set up the offence in the red zone. All that despite losing Money Hunter and Adam Auclair to mid-game injures.

Of Calgary’s 14 possessions, nine ended in punts. The Stampeders mustered 243 total yards of offence and converted only 8-of-22 second down opportunities.

Linebacker Avery Williams led the way with five tackles and two knockdowns. Patrick Levels also made five tackles. Randall Evans was credited with six tackles – four defensive and two special teams – and before getting hurt, Auclair had made four.

Shaheed Salmon, a key special teamer, came in to replace the injured Auclair. He made the most of his rare defensive snaps, amassing four tackles and making a beautiful interception by tipping a screen pass to himself and rumbling down to Calgary’s 18-yard line.

It’s truly a shame to see such a stout defensive effort wasted. Given the way Benevides’ unit played, they deserved a better outcome.

7) It was another solid performance from Bob Dyce’s special teams unit. Lewis Ward broke the shutout late in the fourth quarter by banking a 25-yard field goal in off the right upright.

Thanks to a 65-yard punt in the first quarter, punter Richie Leone averaged 46.8 yards per kick but since the Redblacks’ coverage was a little less tight than usual, his punts averaged a 36.8-yard field position flip.

Nigel Romick had a game-high three special teams tackles while returner Terry Williams averaged 9.6 yards per punt return and 24 yards per kickoff return.

8) To say the throwback tribute helmets the Redblacks donned against the Stampeders were sharp would be a massive understatement. They were perfect. Clean, simple and a classy nod to the iconic white R used by Ottawa teams for decades.

This move was foreshadowed by the various merch items released this past off-season which featured only an R, without the saw blade that has been a part of the Redblacks’ logo since day one. Given how well-established the Redblacks’ brand is at this point, doing away with the buzz saw and keeping the notched R would be a smart way to go from here on out.

The notch serves as a reminder that the Redblacks are distinct. At the same time, the thick white R combined with the red and white tri-stripe is an elegant homage to the 120 years the Rough Riders existed.

The only major disappointment was that OSEG left the job half-done. As glorious as the helmets are, they don’t mesh super well with the current home uniform since the shade of red in the retro helmet stripe doesn’t quite match the shade of red in the jerseys.

Having full retro uniforms would have been the cherry on top of the cake. R-Nation will continue to have to beg the organization to take their money via retro jerseys for at least another year.

9) Never say R-Nation is a fair-weather fan base. Despite their team losing 18 of the last 19 games played at TD Place, 20,452 fans still came out on Friday night. Forget a perennial contender, the city is desperate for a mediocre team that plays entertaining football while winning the occasional game at home. It’s brutal that the organization cannot even manage that.

10) With the loss, the Redblacks drop to 1-7 on the season and fail to make up any ground in a weak East division. If this isn’t rock bottom, it’s close to it.

For fans, it’s hard to be optimistic and find positives to cling to in what seems to be another wasted season. The roster assembled by general manager Shawn Burke this past off-season is playoff calibre. Ultimately, the coaching, specifically on the offensive side of the ball, has been far from it.

Ottawa has a bye next week, then a home-and-home against the Edmonton Elks. With the season on the precipice, the Redblacks must come out of their week off with fresh purpose and much better execution.

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).