Redblacks bend, don’t break in Dyce’s debut (& ten other thoughts on beating the Als)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

After spending a week talking about how much they wanted to win for their new head coach, the players on the Ottawa Redblacks backed up their words with action.

In what was sure to be a highly scrutinized game — faint playoff hopes were on the line and in the team’s first game since firing Paul LaPolice — the Redblacks went into Montreal on Thanksgiving Monday and defeated the Alouettes by a score of 24-18.

Here are all my thoughts on the victory:

1) If Nick Arbuckle keeps playing the way he did in Montreal, the Redblacks will be in every game for the rest of the season. The 29-year-old dropped back to pass 32 times and only four of those passes hit the turf. Not only did Arbuckle complete 87.5 percent of his passes to seven different targets for 229 yards, but he also avoided any turnovers.

He got into a rhythm early, showed excellent timing on some intermediate routes, and he didn’t force anything. Arbuckle did exactly what Ottawa needed him to, playing smart, mistake-free football.

An underrated aspect of Arbuckle’s game that was on full display in Montreal is his ability to shift around the pocket to avoid pressure. For the most part, his offensive line gave him a clean pocket to step up into, but when it collapsed, Arbuckle was able to move around and buy time. That’s largely why Montreal finished the game with no sacks.

2) For the first time in his career, quarterback coach Will Arndt was up in the booth, directing an offence on game day. Although Ottawa’s attack wasn’t overly complicated, it was highly effective. Sometimes, simple is best.

Arndt maintained a good run-to-pass ratio throughout the game — 21 runs to 32 passes — and doing so opened up play-action and deep shots, which the Redblacks actually took.

The big difference in the team’s new offence is that they worked the middle of the field by finding seams in the coverage with intermediate slants and posts. It was really the first time Ottawa’s offence has heavily featured such routes since 2018 when Ernest Jackson etched his name in Ottawa history.

Arndt also leaned into the screen game. It didn’t always produce great results — a handful of hitch screens to receivers were stuffed for minimal gains — but some of the cross-field screens to the running backs were deadly. He also flashed a little creativity with a nicely designed shovel toss that got the ball into DeVonte Dedmon’s hands in the red zone.

Ottawa finished with just 292 yards of offence, but again, they were efficient when it mattered. The team converted 56 percent of their second down opportunities and went two-for-three in the red zone.

Most encouraging was the ability Arndt showed in making adjustments. In the first half, only one of Ottawa’s five drives ended in points. In the second half, four of five drives put points on the scoreboard (not counting the final kneel-down possession) and Ottawa chewed the clock with nearly 21 minutes of time of possession.

Many questioned what the offence would look like with LaPolice out of the picture — and it was just one game — but what should reassure fans in the nation’s capital is that the moment didn’t seem too big for their young play-caller. Arndt didn’t reinvent the wheel, but he didn’t have to.

3) Returning to action for the first time since August, William Powell’s comeback probably wasn’t how he envisioned it. The 34-year-old made four carries for 10 yards, caught one pass for 13 yards and fumbled before exiting the game with an injury.

When Powell went down, he was replaced by Canadian running back Jackson Bennett. The former Gee-Gee quickly demonstrated that he was more than capable of filling Powell’s shoes, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Bennett finished the game with 41 yards on the ground and 25 through the air.

Going all the way back to training camp, Bennett has consistently shown he is capable of producing when given touches. With Powell banged up and Devonte Williams on the six-game injured list, it’ll be interesting to see if Bennett is given a shot at the starting job, especially since the Redblacks have Canadian depth behind him in Brendan Gillanders, Marco Dubois and Anthony Gosselin.

While the latter two are technically listed as fullbacks, they would be capable of stepping in in a pinch if Bennett and Gillanders were to go down with injury.

4) The focal point of Ottawa’s aerial attack was Justin Hardy, as he was targeted a game-high 13 times. The former Atlanta Falcon and Chicago Bear ran crisp routes, caught the ball well and frequently made defenders miss after making the reception. Hardy finished with 11 catches for 79 yards with 44 of those yards coming after the catch.

His performance was stellar and makes it all the more puzzling as to why he only returned to the lineup last week. Although he was injured to begin the year, Hardy has been healthy for weeks, but was buried on the depth chart. Given the way he played against Montreal, it’s fair to say he’ll continue to start.

As for the rest of Ottawa’s receiving corps, before being knocked out of the game with a pair of nasty headshots on the same play, Jaelon Acklin recorded five receptions for 44 yards. With Ottawa facing a short turnaround and playing again on Friday night, hopefully all parties involved exercise extreme caution when it comes to his return. As we’ve seen in recent weeks in the NFL, concussions are nothing to be trifled with. If Acklin can’t go, look for someone like veteran R.J. Harris or Ryan Davis to take his spot.

Darvin Adams made four receptions for 54 yards and DeVonte Dedmon and Marco Dubois each made a single reception for nine and eight yards, respectively.

5) After missing two games to injury, a healthy Darius Ciraco was back to man the centre position and helped solidify Ottawa’s offensive line against a stout Montreal front seven. Not only did the group pass protect well, but they were also strong on the ground.

64 total rushing yards isn’t an eye-popping number, but Ciraco and company excelled in short-yardage situations as backup quarterback Caleb Evans averaged 1.6 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. When you realize nearly all of his carries came on second or third-and-one, you see just how good a push the Redblacks’ offensive line was getting.

6) They made it more uncomfortable than it needed to be on the final drive, but Mike Benevides’ defence held when it needed to and ensured Ottawa left Percival Molson Stadium with the win.

The Redblacks’ defence gave up 389 yards but not a lot of points. Montreal came away with only one touchdown in six red zone appearances and was limited to just three points over the game’s final two quarters. Of Montreal’s 12 possessions, eight went less than 30 yards. One resulted in a fumble. Another in a turnover on downs.

Veteran Abdul Kanneh led the way with six tackles — featuring some hellacious collisions — and forced a fumble. Patrick Levels’ injury meant a significantly increased role for original Redblack Antoine Pruneau, who has mainly been a rotational player on defence. In his first significant defensive action since the season opener (when he again filled in due to an injury), Pruneau was in vintage form — always around the ball. The nine-year veteran finished the game with six tackles and a fumble recovery.

Speaking of Canadians making an impact, in his first action since August, Adam Auclair made his presence felt, recording four tackles.

7) You just had to know that the special teams units were going to play even harder to try and get Bob Dyce a win in his first game in his new job. Lewis Ward was perfect, making all three of the field goals he attempted from 28, 30, and 25 yards out.

In his 100th career game, punter Richie Leone averaged a field position flip of 39.5 yards per punt, smashing four kicks for 185 yards. Also playing in his 100th career game, defensive lineman Nigel Romick (another original Redblack) made his 99th career special teams tackle. Backup linebacker Shaheed Salmon had a whale of a game covering kicks, notching three special teams tackles. He also had a nice tackle for loss near the goal line in the second quarter.

Returner DeVonte Dedmon had a rough night. Not only was he limited to three punt returns for 35 yards, but he also fumbled and later left the game with an injury.

8) I know I sound like a broken record here, but I’m going to keep harping on this. The CFL plays exactly one game at a time, yet the league’s Twitter account routinely fails to tweet out big plays and goes long stretches of the game without posting any content at all. It happened a few times on Monday, but the most egregious example was going 20 minutes in the fourth quarter without any kind of update. The game might as well not have been taking place.

The plays they choose to highlight don’t always make sense, either. One-yard quarterback sneaks and field goals are scoring plays but that doesn’t necessarily make them highlight-worthy. Every game has at least one slick catch or big run and the league should feature them in their content.

Also, the CFL on TSN Twitter account might as well not exist. They have 83,000 followers yet didn’t tweet once during the Thanksgiving Day game. TSN’s main official Twitter account has 959,000 followers and tweeted just four times about the game. Contrast that with the fact that they tweeted 12 times about Sunday night’s NFL matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders in the first half alone.

This is really basic stuff that the league and TSN continue to fail at. In 2022, with one game taking place at a time, there’s no excuse for short viral clips of each and every exciting play not to be tweeted out.

9) In his first game as interim head coach, it was clear that Bob Dyce had his team fired up and ready to play. It’s obvious Dyce commands respect — just listen to any of his players talk about him — but it was his demeanour during the game that oozed confidence and infected his players. There was no hesitation when it came to going for it on third and short situations. He used his challenge well.

It was only one game, and it’s normal to expect some kind of boost from a team when a coaching change is made, but it’s evident that Dyce is prepared and ready to rise to the moment and that his players want him to succeed. That counts for a lot.

10) With the win, the Redblacks’ faint playoff hopes remain alive. They’re still a longshot — they’d need to win out and get help from Calgary and Toronto — but for now, they did what they needed to do to give themselves a chance. At this point in the season, that’s all you can hope for.

The victory improves Ottawa’s record to 4-11, putting them one game back of Hamilton and two of Saskatchewan. Friday night’s upcoming matchup at TD Place against these same Alouettes looms large.

A win would make things really heat up in the East Division, but thanks to a rash of injuries to Acklin, Powell, Levels, Dedmon and Lorenzo Mauldin, there’s a good chance the Redblacks will find themselves shorthanded come Friday night.

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).