One game does not a season make, but for a team that spent the off-season trying to rid itself of the spectre of the past few seasons, the Ottawa Redblacks’ 2023 opener followed a script R-Nation has seen play out far too often in recent years.
An incredible defensive effort mattered naught because the offence failed to find the end zone and, as was the case nine times last season, the Redblacks dropped a one-score game, falling to the Montreal Alouettes by a score of 19-12 at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium. Here are my thoughts on the contest.
1) When Nick Arbuckle was re-signed in early February, it was because his experience was supposed to be an asset if and when he needed to fill in for Jeremiah Masoli. Yet against the Alouettes, Arbuckle made multiple rookie mistakes.
He threw three interceptions, all of which were the result of an under-thrown deep shot. More damning than the turnovers themselves was the fact that each pass that resulted in an interception was thrown into double coverage. Turnovers happen, but veterans shouldn’t be forcing throws into double coverage, let alone three times in an evening.
— CFL (@CFL) June 11, 2023
Overall, Arbuckle struggled to get into rhythm, completing just 54 percent of his passes for 176 yards. An overthrown ball to an open Nate Behar in the end zone right before halftime left four points off the board. There were a handful of other off-target passes as well. The only time the 29-year-old moved the ball regularly was when he was hitting check downs on short crossing routes.
Down a touchdown and given two opportunities in the final three minutes of the game to drive the length of the field, Arbuckle threw an incompletion, looked unsure if he wanted to run before scrambling for eight yards (which led to a punt), threw a six-yard pass, a two-yard pass, and an incompletion that led to a turnover on downs.
Obviously, you never want to overreact to a single game, but with Masoli likely to miss next week’s home opener, the question has to be asked: what does the team have to lose by starting Tyrie Adams? At this point, Arbuckle’s body of work with Ottawa speaks for itself. Given multiple opportunities to win games, he just hasn’t. Ideally, someone shouldn’t be benched a week into the season but Adams’ ability to stretch the field — both with his arm and legs — might open things up for the offence as a whole.
2) This was probably not the homecoming offensive coordinator Khari Jones envisioned when he imagined returning to Montreal. His offence showed flashes but for most of the night, he was held in check by the Alouettes’ defence.
The Redblacks finished the game with just 220 yards of total offence and thanks to converting just seven of 22 second down opportunities, most drives ended in frustration. The team went zero-for-two in the red zone, but would have scored if not for the previously mentioned overthrow and a drop by the usually sure-handed Jaelon Acklin.
Of Ottawa’s 15 possessions, 10 gained nine yards or less. Jones did a good job of sticking with the run, but instead of paying off late game, it frequently put the team into a hole on second down from which they were unable to climb out.
3) The Redblacks’ offensive line is built to pound the ball between the tackles, which is what their play-calling reflected, but I’m not sure American running back Devonte Williams’ style is ideal for that kind of game. The second-year pro boasts plenty of speed and shiftiness, but his most productive plays against Montreal came on sweeps and tosses.
The 26-year-old finished the game with 11 carries for 36 yards. He also caught a couple of swing passes and screens for 15 yards.
Given how Ottawa seems to want to run the ball, perhaps a more powerful back — think Jackson Bennett, Ante Milanovic-Litre or De’Montre Tuggle — would be more effective, while still involving Williams via the passing game on second-and-long situations.
4) It’s tough for receivers to stand out when their quarterback isn’t at his best but to be fair, it wasn’t exactly a banner night from the receiving corps, either. As a whole, the group struggled to create separation and almost everyone was guilty of a drop.
Canadian Nate Behar had a team-high five catches for 45 yards, while sophomore Justin Hardy made four catches for 27 yards. The longest completion of the night went to Quan Bray, who hauled in a perfectly-placed 44-yard bomb. Acklin, who looked to be injured on the first play of the game but returned to action on the next series, was targeted seven times but wound up with two catches for 24 yards.
— CFL (@CFL) June 10, 2023
5) For all the good Ottawa’s offensive line did in pass protection (and they were excellent, conceding a single sack on 35 drop backs), the group struggled to open running lanes consistently, as reflected by the fact that the Redblacks averaged just 3.4 yards per rush.
Coming into the game, the biggest question mark was how local product Zack Pelehos would hold up at right tackle. Aside from two plays — an illegal hands to the face penalty and getting beaten for a sack on second down in the red zone — the former second overall pick more than held his own.
6) Defensive coordinator Barron Miles has to love the effort he saw from his defence. Not only did the group shut down Montreal’s ground game, limiting the Alouettes to just 2.9 yards per carry, but their front seven was hellacious, notching six sacks for a loss of 57 yards and causing off-target throws with their heavy pressure even when they couldn’t take down Cody Fajardo.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) June 11, 2023
Despite being victimized by a handful of big plays, Miles’ unit held Montreal to just 264 total yards of offence. Most encouraging is that when given a short field — be it as a result of interceptions or the bad snap and ensuing Richie Leone fumble — the defence limited the damage to field goals and kept the Alouettes out of the end zone. Of Montreal’s 14 possessions, eight resulted in punts, four in field goals, one a turnover on downs, and one in a touchdown.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) June 11, 2023
Linebacker Douglas Coleman was relentless, leading the way with five tackles — three for a loss — and two sacks. Defensive linemen Lorenzo Mauldin, Michael Wakefield, and Bryce Carter each notched a sack, along with defensive back Cariel Brooks. Veteran Abdul Kanneh made five tackles and had a knockdown.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) June 10, 2023
7) The decision to swap middle linebacker Avery Williams for Jovan Santos-Knox can only be properly judged at the end of the season, but after Week 1 some fans in R-Nation might be wondering how the Redblacks weren’t able to come to terms with the fifth-year pro.
Williams had a game-high nine tackles against his former team and was constantly around the ball, snuffing out plays. Santos-Knox, meanwhile, is on the six-game injured list with a hamstring problem which led to the Redblacks starting Chizi Umunakwe at middle linebacker. The raw rookie finished the game with two tackles.
8) The first indication that something could be off with Ottawa’s special teams came in the preseason. Although it’s much too early in the Bob Dyce era to draw any firm conclusions, it is surprising that the unit he groomed to be arguably the league’s best is now struggling.
Each phase of the Redblacks’ special teams are lacking something right now. The return units are clearly working through growing pains as they integrate new players and schemes. That’s meant that star returner DeVonte Dedmon hasn’t looked like himself, as he struggled to reach top speed and find open lanes against Montreal.
Kick coverage was porous in the preseason and continues to be leaky. Richie Leone punted six times, averaging 42.7 yards per kick, but the net field position flip was just 26.4 yards. Chandler Worthy is a game-changer in his own right and he carved through Ottawa’s coverage units, averaging 19.4 yards per punt return (including a 64-yarder) and took another return to the house, which was only wiped out thanks to an offside penalty.
Adding to the unit’s woes was long-snapper Tanner Doll skipping a snap early in the game that led directly to a Montreal field goal.
— CFL (@CFL) June 10, 2023
If you’re looking for a positive from this group, placekicker Lewis Ward was perfect, nailing kicks from distances of 42, 21, 30 and 45 yards.
9) The Toronto Argonauts unveiled their Grey Cup rings this week and engraved on the inside of the ring was the inscription, “Three strand cord is not easily broken.” The quote is in reference to the resiliency the team showed en route to winning the Grey Cup.
Sticking with that metaphor, for a CFL team to be successful, it needs all three phases — offence, defence and special teams — to work in unison. If one breaks, the other two need to carry the load.
Against Montreal, the Redblacks had two of their three cords break, with poor showings from their offence and special teams ultimately rendering a great defensive effort meaningless.
Nobody should be panicking about a Week 1 loss and, from one perspective, with so much going wrong in a single game, there’s plenty of teaching material for coaches to go over this week. If those mistakes can be learned from, fans won’t be dwelling on this loss for long.
Clearly, this wasn’t the start anyone wanted, but the Redblacks have a chance to right the ship next week. Beating the visiting Calgary Stampeders on Thursday night would not only dull the sting of this defeat, but also give R-Nation a home win, something that is long overdue.