Redblacks deliver entertainment, but no home victory (& nine other thoughts on losing to Montreal)

Shaq Johnson-Siaosi Marnier-Ottawa RedBlacks-14oct2022-Photo: Scott Grant

The Ottawa Redblacks continued to show growth and resolve under interim head coach Bob Dyce but ultimately came up short, falling to the visiting Montreal Alouettes by a score of 34-30 in front of 18,147 members of R-Nation.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) Four days after completing 87 percent of his passes, quarterback Nick Arbuckle again had his way with Montreal’s defence, this time picking them apart by completing 77 percent of his passes — 28 of 38 — for 271 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

In the first half, Arbuckle put on a show, routinely pushing the ball down the field with pinpoint accuracy. In perhaps the wildest stat of the game, Arbuckle’s first-quarter touchdown toss to rookie Siaosi Mariner was Ottawa’s first touchdown pass at home since July.

But as well as Arbuckle started the game, things tapered off in the second half. The deep, field-stretching passes that worked so well in the game’s opening 30 minutes vanished. None of Arbuckle’s second-half completions went for more than 15 yards until Ottawa’s very final possession.

Furthermore, although the 29-year-old did well to avoid having any passes picked off, his lack of awareness when scrambling — twice not feeling the pressure coming from behind — led to a pair of fumbles. One was returned for a touchdown, the other sealed the game with a turnover on downs. In a four-point loss, those are crucial swing plays.

2) In just his second game as Ottawa’s play-caller, quarterback coach Will Arndt did some really good things. Being aggressive out of the gate with a trick play — a lateral screen pass to Ryan Davis who flipped it to a streaking Shaq Johnson for a 45-yard gain — immediately achieved two things. It got the crowd into the game and had Montreal’s defence off balance.

In the first half, Arndt had the Redblacks pushing the ball down the field, and it resulted in touchdowns and scoring drives. In fact, three of Ottawa’s first four possessions finished in the end zone.

But it’s the unit’s performance in the second half that cost Ottawa a victory. Mustering just two field goals in six possessions over the game’s final 30 minutes was never going to be enough to put Montreal away.

The Redblacks finished with respectable offensive numbers – 378 yards of offence generated, averaging 7.3 yards per play – but the stat that you can point to as responsible for the final score is Ottawa converting just one of eight second-down opportunities in the second half. If you can’t keep drives going, you can’t control the clock or score points.

Given that it was a one-score game most of the night, Arndt has to do a better job maintaining a more balanced run-to-pass ratio. Dialling up 38 pass attempts to eight handoffs is not a sustainable recipe for success.

3) Let’s dive into Bob Dyce’s decision to kick a field goal on third-and-goal from Montreal’s three-yard line with 9:37 left in the fourth quarter, tied at 27.

On one hand, there is the very persuasive argument that since you’ve marched all the way into the shadows of the opponent’s goalpost, you go for it. After all, your team is 4-11, you’re barely clinging to the possibility of a playoff spot and the head coach was recently fired, in part, for being overly conservative.

As an interim coach, going for it would be an excellent opportunity to remind players on both sides of the ball that you believe in them. If you fail to score, your defence should be able to prevent the opponent from marching 107 yards to score a touchdown. Best case scenario, they prevent them from even making it into field goal range and then no harm is truly done.

On the other hand, your team hasn’t done much of anything in the second half. You’ve rarely moved the ball and, although you’re now close to the end zone, kicking a field goal gives you the lead and means the drive comes away with points. With so much time left, as long as your defence doesn’t give up a touchdown, you might be in a position to get the ball back, tied, with a few minutes left in the game and an opportunity to drive for the game-winning score.

Personally, I would have liked to see the Redblacks go for it. But because of a poor play selection on second down, there wasn’t much confidence that they would convert and score on third down.

Whoever made the decision to take out Arbuckle and insert Caleb Evans on second down — be it Arndt or Dyce — erred. With Evans in, the defence was cued for the run. The decision to give the ball to Jackson Bennett out of shotgun was a terrible one.

If they felt the need to insert Evans at that point in the game, why not take advantage of the defence cheating to play the run? Play-action and a short pass to the flats might have done the trick. Or maybe an RPO (Run Pass Option) with Evans getting to the edge would have caused serious problems for Montreal’s defence.

In hindsight, the team didn’t lose because Ottawa got a bit conservative, but scoring six (or seven) instead of three would’ve completely changed the dynamics of those final few possessions.

3) Finally given a chance to start, Cumberland native and former Gee-Gee Jackson Bennett performed admirably. The 26-year-old ran hard for an average of 6.9 yards per carry, proved to be a valuable safety outlet in the passing game — catching four passes for 11 yards — and helped in pass protection by identifying and picking up the blitz well.

Jackson Bennett-Ottawa RedBlacks-14oct2022-Photo: Scott Grant

And yet, it felt like he was underused. Jackson finished the night with just eight carries, four in each half. It can be hard to stick to the run game when trailing by multiple scores, but that was never the case against Montreal. It was a tight affair all the way through and perhaps leaning on Bennett a little more would’ve made a difference.

On a non-football note, it was very cool to see Bennett propose to his girlfriend on the field after the game. Talk about a made-in-Ottawa story. A local kid, who played his university football in town, makes his first start at running back for his hometown pro team and then proposes on the field after the game. That’s storybook stuff.

4) With Jaelon Acklin out, Justin Hardy was once again the focal point of Ottawa’s passing attack. Hardy led all receivers by turning 12 targets into eight catches for 93 yards. Most impressive is the fact that 66 of those yards came after the catch. The man is dangerous with the ball in his hands.

It’s impressive how quickly the former NFLer has developed chemistry with Arbuckle. Hardy has been targeted 25 times over the past two games, amassing 172 yards. If Acklin returns this season, Hardy’s play should draw some of the coverage away from him, forcing defences to pick their poison.

As for the rest of Ottawa’s receiving corps, Siaosi Mariner finished with three catches for 53 yards and a touchdown. Canadian Tevaun Smith hauled in six catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.

Ryan Davis, Keaton Bruggeling and Darvin Adams each made a pair of catches for 21, 11 and nine yards respectively. Marco Dubois caught one pass for five yards.

5) Collectively, it was a strong effort from Mike Benevides’ defence, but individual failures prevented it from being a winning performance.

There was a lot to like from Ottawa’s defenders: they notched four sacks, forced two turnovers and held Montreal to 307 total yards, including less than 100 on the ground. Trevor Harris passed for just 241 yards and no Alouette had more than 34 yards rushing.

And yet, as has been the case so many times this season, missed tackles — be they a result of failure to wrap up or taking poor angles in pursuit of the ball carrier — led to 130 yards after the contact.

That, to put it lightly, killed the Redblacks, repeatedly extending drives and leading to points that otherwise should have been prevented. Ottawa’s defence was also continually given short fields to defend, put in bad spots as a result of poor kick coverage gifting Montreal excellent starting field position for their drives.

To the unit’s credit, they played hard to the very end. Even when it looked like the game was over and sealed, they still managed to force another turnover on downs, giving their offence one final chance to score the go-ahead touchdown.

Defensive back Damon Webb led the way with eight tackles, followed by Shaheed Salmon’s seven. Tre Hornbuckle was a force all game long, making two tackles and a pair of sacks. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin looked to have added to his CFL sack league with his 15th quarterback takedown, but ultimately it was credited to Cleyon Laing, who had a pair of tackles and a knockdown to go with his sack.

Cleyon Laing-Lorenzo Mauldin-Ottawa RedBlacks-14oct2022-Photo: Scott Grant

6) It’s hard to remember the last time the Redblacks clearly came out on the losing end of the special teams phase of the game, but Chandler Worthy was a huge part of the reason why Ottawa lost a tight game.

Despite punter Richie Leone averaging 39.7 yards per punt, his kicks only averaged a net field flip of 27.5 yards. Poor kick coverage meant Worthy racked up 172 return yards, averaging 14.6 yards per punt return with a long of 39 yards and 24.8 yards on kickoffs with a long of 55.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ryan Davis drew the task of replacing DeVonte Dedmon but managed merely 4.3 yards per punt return and 19.3 per kickoff return.

Lewis Ward made all three of the field goals he attempted, splitting the uprights from 41, 44 and 10 yards out.

7) Although R-Nation filed out of TD Place shaking their head at yet another home loss — the team’s 22nd in their past 23 home contests — the silver lining was that at least it was an entertaining game. After sitting through some truly ghastly efforts at Lansdowne in recent seasons, this game had a fun factor which had been sorely lacking.

That isn’t to suggest fans in the nation’s capital are content with defeat, but when a game keeps you guessing with back-and-forth action, big plays and riveting finishes, losses become a bit easier to swallow because you feel you got something for your money.

With that said, whatever curse has been cast at Lansdowne needs to be lifted ASAP. With Ottawa in the midst of a municipal election, perhaps residents would be wise to ask their preferred candidates what their plan is for helping the Redblacks win at home again.

8) Do we need any more proof that playing a game on three days rest is a silly idea, especially for a league that touts itself as sympathetic to player safety?

Thanks to injuries sustained in Monday’s Thanksgiving Day game, Ottawa was missing running back William Powell, right tackle Dino Boyd, receiver Jaelon Acklin, defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike, linebacker Patrick Levels, and returner DeVonte Dedmon.

The players who replaced them — Bennett, Mariner, Randy Richards, Bryce Carter, Douglas Coleman and Davis — performed admirably, but that’s a lot of talent to make up for.

What’s telling about how much the players have bought into Bob Dyce as interim head coach is that even with all the above-mentioned injuries, the Redblacks have looked like a completely different team the past two weeks.

Bob Dyce-Ottawa RedBlacks-14oct2022-Photo: Scott Grant

The group seems to be playing harder and sounds more positive when speaking to the media. It doesn’t feel like it’s for show either.

The results might not always be as desired, but it’s clear this group is buying what Dyce is selling. For that reason alone, many in R-Nation won’t be able to help but wonder what could have been if OSEG had decided to make a change earlier in the season.

9) Oddly enough, the loss to Montreal doesn’t dampen Ottawa’s playoff chances whatsoever. The only thing it definitively ended was the slim possibility of the Redblacks finishing second in the East and hosting a home playoff game. Given how Ottawa plays at home, that might be for the best.

As things stand, the Redblacks still need to win out, sweeping the Ticats in their upcoming home-and-home. And they still need Saskatchewan to lose their final two games to Calgary. The situation is exactly the same as it was heading into this game.

Put another way, the Redblacks’ playoff fate is out of their hands because they need serious help (and luck) for things to break in their favour. Yet, in spite of everything that has happened in 2022, if Ottawa wins their next two games, they’ll have a legitimate shot at post-season play.

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).