Currently at the bottom of the East Division standings with a 3-8 record, the Ottawa Redblacks seem destined to miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season unless something drastic changes.
Aside from the obvious — win — here are seven things head coach Bob Dye and his staff must do to help Ottawa reach the postseason for the first time since Rick Campbell and Trevor Harris led the Redblacks to a Grey Cup appearance back in 2018.
Air it out
Khari Jones’ offence averages more rushing yards per game than any team in the CFL and although it has helped shelter his rookie starting quarterback and kept the team in games, it hasn’t translated to wins.
Ottawa has finished with more yards than their opponent just one time this season in eleven games. They rank last in offensive touchdowns scored with 17 and have also generated the league’s fewest first downs. Ottawa needs to fix their passing game to improve both of those stats if they harbour any ambitions of making the playoffs.
Currently, the Redblacks are the least efficient team in the league at throwing the ball with just over 200 yards per game and a measly six passing touchdowns. No team has been worse at generating explosive plays through the air with only nine completions of 30-plus yards, allowing opposing defences to smother short routes.
It’s not only that Ottawa isn’t connecting on their deep shots, it’s that they’re not even trying to take them. Only 19 of the 205 passes attempted by Dustin Crum this season have travelled more than 20 yards in the air, six of which have been complete. That has to improve.
Cut the explosives
Barron Miles’ defensive unit is the best in the league at shutting down the run as its conceded just 3.9 yards per carry. However, that’s undermined by how poorly the Redblacks defend the pass.
Ottawa gives up more yards per game than any other team with 386 and is routinely victimized by big plays. The CFL stats crew defines a big play as a run of 20-plus yards or a pass of 30-plus yards and the Redblacks have been burned by 35 such plays. It doesn’t matter if you stuff the run on first down for no gain if you give up a deep bomb the next.
One thing that would go a long way towards eliminating these type of explosive plays would be defenders taking better angles of pursuit. Of the 3,584 passing yards given up by the Redblacks, over 40 percent have come after the catch.
Get Lozo rolling
Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldino was one of the most disruptive defenders in the country in 2022 as he made 43 tackles, 17 sacks, three pass knockdowns, and two forced fumbles to be named the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
The 30-year-old has struggled to replicate that success in 2023 as he’s made only 17 tackles and three sacks. Part of the drop in production is likely due to an injury he suffered in practice earlier this year, but if he’s going to play banged up, the Redblacks need some glimmer of the game-breaker they relied so heavily on last year.
Find (or create) space
Jaelon Acklin leads the Redblacks with 39 catches for 552 yards and Justin Hardy has made 55 catches for 550 yards, though they’ve both felt like afterthoughts in the offence at times. The team’s third-leading receiver, Nate Behar, has 286 yards, followed by Quan Bray, who was released after only two games.
With nearly two-thirds of the season gone, this group clearly hasn’t been productive enough. It’s too late to overhaul the personnel in the receiving corps, so Jones hopefully used Ottawa’s bye week to adjust his scheme to get his weapons into space.
Manipulating the defence to create holes downfield for his receivers to exploit would go a long way towards helping Jones’ offence be more effective through the air.
Continue winning the turnover battle
Teams generally win when they generate more takeaways than their opponents but that hasn’t been the case for Dyce’s squad. Ottawa boasts a plus-five turnover ratio and have actually won the turnover battle in six of their eleven games. This just hasn’t translated into victories.
Ottawa has forced 30 forced turnovers — 16 interceptions, nine fumble recoveries, and five turnovers on downs — but have continued to finish games on the wrong side of the scoreboard. At some point, the tide has to turn, but until then the Redblacks must continue to be opportunistic on defence.
As detailed by my colleague John Hodge, no team lost more man games to injury than the Redblacks over the first half of the season. Injuries have devastated their roster.
The Redblacks currently have ten players on the six-game injured list. Most of those are out for the season, though the possible return of a defensive back like Money Hunter, Justin Howell or Hakeem Bailey would go a long way towards patching up a leaky secondary.
Start cooking at home
The Redblacks have yet to win a game against an East Division opponent and that has to change immediately, starting this week against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Friday night.
Having dropped their first two meetings this season, Ottawa’s already lost the season series between the two teams. A loss this week would put them four points back of Hamilton without the head-to-head tiebreaker.