Plenty of entertainment but no defence (& 10 other thoughts on Ottawa’s loss to the Argos)

Photo courtesy: Ottawa Redblacks

The 262nd meeting between Ottawa and Toronto’s professional football teams was potentially the most exciting game of the season, featuring multiple lead changes, explosive plays and defensive and special teams touchdowns. In the end, the visiting Redblacks fell by a score of 44-31 to the Argonauts at BMO Field on Sunday night.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

1) Dustin Crum’s fifth career start was his most complete effort since taking over as QB1. The 24-year-old rookie has demonstrated considerable growth in the handful of games he’s started, and nowhere was that more evident than in how he went through his reads against the Argos.

In previous games, Crum might have made one or two reads before tucking the ball and running but on Sunday night he repeatedly hung in the pocket, stepping up when necessary, and kept his eyes down field to deliver strikes.

Crum finished the night by completing 81 percent of his passes for 292 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He picked up another 42 yards on the ground, scrambling nine times for short gains when the pocket collapsed.

Despite all the positives, there’s still plenty of room for growth. Although Crum avoided turning the ball over, he still appeared unable to recognize certain blitz packages — or perhaps he merely failed to adjust to them — and was sacked five times.

With all that said, on most nights, Crum’s efforts would have been rewarded with a win.

2) After going two straight games without scoring a touchdown, Khari Jones’ offence got back on track in Toronto. The unit started out hot but cooled as the game went on.

The numbers were solid with 22 first downs and 345 yards of net offence but for all the good the offence did in the first half, they only mustered seven points over the game’s final 30 minutes.

Jones found success early when he had Crum using play-action and working the middle of the field with his slot receivers on intermediate routes. However, as Toronto adjusted to take away those throws, Ottawa was slow to counter their efforts.

Jones kept things balanced well with 23 runs to 26 passes, though needs to do more to help Crum deal with the blitz. Ottawa’s screen game is non-existent, which is puzzling considering how effective a well-timed screen can be in slowing down a pass rush and offsetting a struggling offensive line.

3) It was a quiet night for Ottawa’s running backs as Devonte Williams recorded 12 touches for 47 yards on the ground and 26 in the air. He broke off two runs of 10-plus yards and once again displayed a downright nasty spin move in the open field.

Canadian Jackson Bennett found absolutely no room to run as his three carries resulted in just three yards, though he made a beautiful 11-yard touchdown catch when motioned out to the slot.

4) It only took nine games, but Jaelon Acklin finally broke out in a big way, hauling in six passes for 157 yards and a touchdown. Four of those six catches came on second down and moved the chains. If Acklin can regain some of his 2022 form, it’ll go a long way towards making life easier for his rookie quarterback.

As for the rest of the receiving corps, Justin Hardy made seven catches for 62 yards and a touchdown and Shaq Evans had two for 17 yards. No other receiver made more than one catch and with Bralon Addison and Maurice Ffrench having a few weeks of practice under their belts, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either (or both) make their way into the lineup.

5) Since allowing four sacks through their first three games, Ottawa’s offensive line has regressed significantly in their pass protection, allowing 34 sacks over the course of the past six games. In a stat that seems tough to believe, Dustin Crum has been sacked more than any other quarterback in the CFL despite starting just five games.

As I have mentioned previously, some of that is a result of his tendency to hang onto the ball too long, but more of it is a result individual failures in pass protection. Zack Pelehos has done a lot of things right in his first season as a starter, but struggles with speed rushers off the edge. Dontae Bull, the first overall pick in the 2023 CFL Draft, dressed for his first game against the Argos and was used as an extra lineman in heavy packages.

6) Let’s talk about the defence. The good was a third quarter goal line stand that resulted in a turnover on downs, and Cariel Brooks snagging a pick-six.

The bad was just about everything else. The Argos came into the contest averaging a CFL-high 32 points per game and improved upon that by hanging 44 points on the Redblacks.

The numbers reflect Toronto’s dominance. The Argos amassed 544 yards while averaging 10.7 yards per play, converting 67 percent of their second down opportunities and going four-for-six in the red zone.

Most damning was how easy it all looked. Chad Kelly shredded Ottawa’s secondary, averaging 14.4 yards per pass and making four completions of 30 or more yards. It’s not like the Argos receiving corps were making contested catches, either.

Far too often when a Toronto receiver caught the ball, there wasn’t even a Redblacks defender within the camera frame. Players were running wide open, as demonstrated by the fact that 169 of the Argos’ 417 receiving yards came after the catch.

Ottawa’s secondary is missing key pieces with Brandin Dandridge, Money Hunter and Hakeem Bailey all on the six-game injured list, but that doesn’t excuse the poor performance from a unit that still features plenty of experience in Brooks, Abdul Kanneh, Sherrod Baltimore, Justin Howell, and Alonzo Addae.

It’s fair to note that as much as the secondary is performing poorly, they aren’t getting much help from the front seven. The Redblacks failed to record a sack, but that’s not really the problem. The issue is that the pass rush put little to no pressure on Kelly. Pressure can make a quarterback rush a throw, abandon his reads and lead to bad decisions. A lack of pressure is killer, every single time.

Canadian linebacker Adam Auclair led the way with eight tackles.

7) As much as the defence wears this defeat, Ottawa’s special teams were a negative factor in the loss. Richie Leone punted seven times for a solid gross average of 45 yards per attempt, however poor kick coverage reduced the net average to just 27.7 yards.

Javon Leake averaged 21.2 yards per punt return and took one to the house. Although it wound up not mattering, don’t overlook the effort of Marco Dubois in chasing down Leake. That’s a guy who is invested and wants to win.

Ty Cranston, Kevin Francis, Anthony Gosselin and Gary Johnson Jr. each made two special teams tackles.

8) For a team that already boasts nine players on the six-game injured list, Ottawa can ill afford to watch anyone go down with an injury, yet that’s exactly what happened to Howell and Johnson Jr. Both are significant contributors in their own rights as Howell is the team’s starting safety and Johnson Jr. has delivered thunderous special teams tackles.

Hopefully neither misses much time.

9) Backup quarterback Nick Arbuckle didn’t make the trip to Toronto as his wife went into labour so here’s to wishing the Arbuckles a healthy (and quick) delivery.

10) With the loss, the Redblacks drop to 3-6 and last place in the East Division. It was Toronto’s 11th win in their last 13 games against Ottawa.

The frustrating part for R-Nation is that so far, the 2023 Redblacks are a team that rarely has all three units playing well in the same game. There’s been incredible defensive efforts wasted by putrid offence showings, and on the nights the offence has shown up, the defence has been porous. Special teams have been rock solid until they’ve caved in crucial moments, like at the end of the game in Regina last week.

Yet for everything that’s gone wrong, the Redblacks still control their own fate as their next three opponents are Montreal, Edmonton and Hamilton.

Next Saturday’s game against Montreal has massive implications. Not only are the Alouettes four points ahead of Ottawa in the standings, given that the Redblacks have already lost the season series to Hamilton, they cannot afford to lose another tie-breaker to a divisional opponent.

With everyone in the West Division outside of Winnipeg and B.C struggling, a crossover doesn’t seem likely. If Ottawa can put together a full team effort and start to get healthy, they will be in the thick of things throughout the second half of the season.

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).