Chronic issues prove fatal for Redblacks (& 11 other thoughts on losing to the Ticats)

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

With their season on the line, the same issues that plagued the Ottawa Redblacks so many times in 2022 once again proved to be their demise.

In front of a sold-out crowd at Tim Horton’s Field, the Redblacks lost another game where their offence failed to do much of anything and their defence failed to come up with a timely stop, this time falling to the Ticats by a score of 30-27.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) Nick Arbuckle’s performance against Hamilton epitomized the kind of quarterback that he is. He’s the kind that will do some good things — for the most part, he took care of the ball — and some bad things — he rarely pushed the ball downfield, with his longest pass of the night going for just 18 yards.

The 29-year-old has an intriguing toolbox of skills, but it’s also easy to see why multiple head coaches chose to move on from him as their starter. Against Hamilton, Arbuckle completed over 70 percent of his passes (19/27) for 166 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. The high completion percent rate is typical for him, but much of that has to do with his preference for checking the ball down and taking the safe pass option.

As much as Arbuckle does a good job of knowing where to go with the ball, the issue is often simply getting it there. Like many of his other starts this season, Arbuckle had a handful of passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage. Although that’s something that happens to every quarterback, it seems to happen a bit more than usual to him.

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Similar to last week, Arbuckle had a chance late in the fourth quarter to lead a drive to put Ottawa ahead. Instead, the team was forced to settle for a 51-yard field goal. Letting opportunities like that slip through his fingers is part of the reason why it’s hard to envision him with the Redblacks in 2023.

With Ottawa’s season effectively over, it’s likely R-Nation has seen the last of Arbuckle under centre. With what is effectively an exhibition game remaining, it doesn’t make much sense to give Arbuckle another start. The Redblacks would be better served by seeing what they have in someone like Tyrie Adams.

2) Before diving into the game called by quarterback coach Will Arndt, it must be acknowledged that gusting winds of up to 44 kilometres an hour were a huge factor in the game.

Look no further than the fact that all 27 of Ottawa’s points were scored in the second and fourth quarters when they had the wind at their backs. But that lack of production in the first and third quarters was the difference in a one-score game. 13 of Hamilton’s 30 points were scored going into the wind.

Even though the above-mentioned wind was an issue, it doesn’t explain why Arndt only managed to squeeze 217 total yards – 15 first downs – out of his offence. The Redblacks averaged just 4.8 yards per play. Contrast that with the Ticats averaging 7.1 per play.

Although Arndt didn’t have any outright terrible calls, it was puzzling that he got away from the run game. When your running back is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and you’re dealing with tough weather conditions, why not keep him involved?

Furthermore, the Redblacks were too reliant on hitch passes. At times, they were successful but, more often than not, they failed to generate good yardage. Why have your receivers run sideways when you could have them stretching the field vertically? Ottawa’s longest pass of the night was just 18 yards, and that can’t be excused or justified by the wind. After all, for 30 minutes it was at their backs.

Of the Redblacks’ 14 possessions, 11 lasted four plays or less. Only three gained more than 30 yards. Most damning is that when gifted three turnovers, Ottawa’s offence did absolutely nothing, going three and out each time.

Finally, similar to last week, after a strong first half, the Redblacks managed nothing more than a pair of field goals in the second half. That was never going to be enough to put Hamilton away.

3) Just like last week, the only thing slowing down Canadian running back Jackson Bennett was his offensive coordinator. The Cumberland native turned 11 carries into 63 yards. Bennett ran hard — rarely going down at first contact – -and managed to bust off gains of 13 and 21 yards.

Despite not catching a pass, Bennett was a factor in the passing game thanks to his excellent blocking in blitz pick-up.

4) For a guy getting his first action since July, it was more than a little odd to see veteran receiver R.J. Harris on the receiving end of seven of Ottawa’s first nine pass attempts. Harris finished the game with a team-high 11 targets, seven of which turned into catches for 62 yards. Given how smooth Harris looked on the field, it doesn’t make much sense why he was a healthy scratch all year.

Speaking of guys who were healthy scratches for most of the season, Justin Hardy made five catches for 34 yards. What was most impressive about Hardy’s night was that he continually turned short catches into bigger gains, as evidenced by the fact that 27 of his 34 yards came after the catch.

The performances of Hardy and Harris only reinforce the notion that Ottawa’s game-day roster was not well managed for most of 2022.

As for the rest of Ottawa’s receiving corps, Darvin Adams finished with three catches for 32 yards and a drop. Siaosi Mariner finished with three catches for 37 yards and Ryan Davis caught one pass for one yard.

5) The stat sheet will show that the Redblacks’ offensive line gave up three sacks, but in reality, all three takedowns were a result of Arbuckle either holding onto the ball too long or failing to throw the ball away when the protection broke down.

That’s not to say Ottawa’s offensive line was blameless, but for the majority of the night, they provided a clean pocket for their quarterback to step up into.

In terms of the ground game, Darius Ciraco and company paved the way for nearly five yards per rushing attempt and consistently converted short-yardage situations.

6) Mike Benevides’ defence played hard and generated turnovers, until it really mattered.

As has been the case all too often with the Redblacks, their defence made plenty of impressive plays, but none in the last few minutes of the game. Although Ottawa’s defence has flashed moments of dominance, they are not a dominant defence.

A dominant defence rises to the circumstances and meets the moment. The Redblacks’ defence is soft against the run and opportunistic, but when they absolutely needed to get off the field in the fourth quarter, their secondary was exposed, they lost containment and missed open field tackles.

Hamilton put up 424 yards of offence on the Redblacks, with 177 of those yards coming on the ground. Of the Ticats’ 17 possessions, eight gained at least 30 yards.

Like so many other times this season, individual moments of brilliance couldn’t overcome missed tackles and blown coverages. Brandin Dandridge’s 51-yard forced fumble return for a touchdown was a stellar display of sheer will. He also had an impressive knockdown of a deep pass attempt.

Lorenzo Mauldin added to his league-leading sack total, notching his 16th sack of the season while stripping Dane Evans in the first quarter. Avery Williams was all over the field, making seven tackles. Canadian linebacker Adam Auclair made five tackles and had a perfectly timed hit over the middle to force a deep incompletion.

Yet none of those plays were made on Hamilton’s final possession when backup quarterback Matthew Shiltz marched the Ticats 45 yards down the field to kick the game-winning points. Shiltz coming in late and killing the Redblacks with a game-winning drive is becoming somewhat of a regular thing, much to the chagrin of R-Nation.

7) Given how windy it was, special teams play was a huge factor in the game. Punter Richie Leone averaged just 37 yards per punt, mainly because he was always kicking into the wind. Lewis Ward nailed both of his field goal attempts, splitting the uprights from 36 and 51 yards out.

With how accurate Ward has been in recent weeks, it was more than a little surprising to see Bob Dyce choose to eschew a 37-yard attempt into the wind in the first quarter, instead choosing to punt. In a three-point loss, not attempting that kick certainly looms large.

In terms of the return game, Ryan Davis was a non-factor. He fielded three punts for a total of nine yards, with his longest return coming in at six yards. He also chose or was unable to catch a punt in the first quarter, and by doing so conceded an extra 25 yards of field position.

The injury to returner DeVonte Dedmon has proved significant. It also highlights the first truly bad transaction made by GM Shawn Burke. When Burke traded Terry Williams to the B.C. Lions, he was leading the league in return yards. Even though Ottawa had just signed Dedmon, surely there could have been a way to keep both on the roster. Having a combination of Williams and Dedmon on the field together to return kicks would have meant that teams couldn’t have simply kicked away from Dedmon as they did for a month. And it would have meant depth for Dedmon’s eventual injury.

8) I’m aware Thanksgiving was a few weeks ago but keeping in with that spirit, I’m thankful that I’ll never experience being tackled by linebacker Shaheed Salmon. The third-year pro had a monster game in kick coverage, making four special teams tackles. Each of his hits was more thundering than the last. When Salmon arrives at the ball carrier, it’s always a hellacious collision.

9) Here’s my weekly rant about how the CFL sucks at social media. For yesterday’s game the CFL’s official Twitter account tweeted highlights of the opening kickoff, an aerial shot of the stadium, field goals, quarterback sneak touchdowns and graphics of the score.

What they didn’t tweet highlights of — or chose to ignore — were any of the big, explosive offensive plays, Mauldin’s strip-sack, Auclair’s hit to break up a deep pass, Bennett’s 23-yard run to set up Ottawa inside the red zone, Sherrod Baltimore blowing up a screen pass and Money Hunter’s third-quarter interception. Why go viral when you can go boring, eh?

Speaking of the third quarter, they didn’t tweet once during it. Both of the turnovers, the scoring play and a handful of other big plays were skipped over.

As for the CFL on TSN Twitter account, naturally, the last time they tweeted was Oct. 20th, the day before the game. They did retweet a graphic showing the betting lines for last night’s double-header on early Friday afternoon though.

Seriously, this is amateur-level stuff that I’ve documented week after week. Why can’t the CFL manage to do the bare minimum when it comes to promoting itself online?

10) It’s undeniable that intern head coach Bob Dyce has injected life and passion into a team that was listless for much of the season. As such, he deserves serious consideration for keeping the job next year. The circumstances in which he’s been coaching must be taken into account as well. He’s without an experienced play-caller and missing some of his most dangerous weapons to injury in Jaelon Acklin and Dedmon.

Each one of the games that he’s coached since taking over the team has been a one-score game — one win and two losses. The fact that he had no margin for error did him no favours. It’s also why when fans in the nation’s capital look back on the 2022 season, they’ll struggle to comprehend why OSEG waited to move on from Paul LaPolice for as long as they did. It’s hard not to believe things could have been different if Dyce had been given more time at the helm.

11) For the eighth time this season, the Redblacks found themselves on the wrong side of a single-score game. Be it the offence unable to put together a drive they absolutely had to have or the defence failing to get off the field in a key moment, the 2022 squad never showed themselves to be capable of closing games out.

With the loss, the slim playoff hopes R-Nation was clinging to are dead. For the third season in a row, the Ottawa Redblacks won’t be participating in the post-season.

As such, the team’s season finale should be a showcase for practice roster and younger players who didn’t see the field much in 2022. It would be good see Tyrie Adams given the start at quarterback, or at least significant playing time. The roster should also be juggled to ensure 2022 CFL draft picks see the field. Give plenty of reps to Zack Pelehos and Cyrille Hogan-Saindon on the offensive line. Dress Keaton Bruggeling but don’t limit him to special teams. See what he can do after he gets the ball in his hands on offence.

It remains to be seen how many members of R-Nation come out for the final home game of the year, but those that do will be cheering for two things: a win so that team avoids going an entire season without a victory at TD Place and hope for the future.

Surely the Redblacks can deliver one of those next Saturday?

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).