Every win matters: nine takeaways from the Redblacks’ preseason opener

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym/RFB Sport Photography

Yes, it’s only the preseason, but the Ottawa Redblacks’ 31-22 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Tim Horton’s field on Saturday afternoon does matter.

It matters because the men who took the field showed the coaching staff what they could do in actual game situations. It matters because the mistakes made will provide coaches with plenty of teaching moments as they review the tape. And finally, it matters because even though it doesn’t count in the standings, a win is a win.

For all the talk of changing the losing culture, it could’ve easily been a case of “here we go again” had Ottawa allowed their six-point lead late in the fourth quarter to slip away. Instead, the Redblacks found a way to buckle down and secure the win.

Here are all my thoughts on the game.

1) It would be silly to read too much into Dru Brown’s stats given that the offence was pared down for the preseason but I’m sure he had hoped for a better outing in his quarter of action.

Ottawa’s presumed starter completed four of six pass attempts for 26 yards, but missed on a few deep shots and was sacked once. The only scoring drive he led came as a result of a 29-yard defensive pass interference flag. All that said, Brown’s arm looked good and he showed a willingness to stretch the field, something that has been missing from quarterbacks in the nation’s capital these past few seasons.

Brown was replaced by sophomore pivot Dustin Crum early in the second quarter. It took Crum a while to get going but once he did, he strung together some nice drives and finished his day by going 10 of 16 for 108 yards and a beautifully placed touchdown throw. He also ran the ball for 27 yards and a score.

It was concerning to see the 25-year-old take so many unnecessary big hits. He got smoked a few times when he hung in the pocket, but also on a couple of scrambles when he fought for every yard. Crum established his toughness last year and will have an important role as Brown’s backup in 2024, so hopefully the coaching staff gets in his ear and reminds him that there’s no sense in risking injury in the preseason.

The other quarterback who took snaps for Ottawa was Jake Dunniway. The 24-year-old was 100 percent on the lone drive he led. He completed a single pass for seven yards and had six clean handoffs as the Redblacks marched down the field to kick a field goal and seal the win.

2) Offensive coordinator Tommy Condell kept things simple and balanced on Saturday, calling 23 runs to 23 passes.

Despite the offence being fairly vanilla, there are a few noteworthy stats. Any time a team coverts on 45 percent of its second down attempts (9/20), it’s doing something right. Furthermore, the fact that Ottawa cashed in on three of their four red zone trips is a positive sign.

Most encouraging, however, was the fact that late in the game, when nursing a single-score lead, Condell was able to orchestrate an eight-play drive that killed nearly four minutes of clock and resulted in a field goal to make it a two-score game.

3) The starting running back job is up for grabs, and all three American rookies who got carries versus the Ticats acquitted themselves well. Ryquell Armstead played the first half and turned seven carries into 18 yards and a touchdown. He also caught two passes for 15 yards.

Kylin Hill had five carries for 33 yards and a single catch for nine yards, while Ronnie Brown made the most of his six fourth-quarter carries, generating 31 yards.

Each of the backs displayed nice burst and a willingness to put their shoulders down and run through contact. With how much head coach Bob Dyce preaches being a physical team, he had to like what he saw out of his backfield.

4) With numerous veterans not making the trip to Hamilton, Ottawa’s young receivers had a real opportunity to give the coaching staff food for thought. American Jon’Vea Johnson not only caught a game-high five passes for 54 yards and a touchdown, but he also showed some real chemistry with Crum.

Another pass-catcher who continued to build off a strong training camp was American Kalil Pimpleton. The 25-year-old’s stat line wasn’t overly impressive — just two catches for 18 yards — but he displayed an ability to get behind defenders and likely finishes with a touchdown catch if not interfered with on a deep ball.

5) Heading into the game, many in R-Nation were scouring the depth chart to see how the battle for right tackle between first-round picks Zack Pelehos and Dontae Bull was progressing. Instead, Ottawa opted to start a pair of Americans at tackle in Drake Centers and Philip Norman. Both played the entire first half.

In the third quarter, Pelehos got into the game and played into the fourth. After 56 minutes, Bull entered the game at right tackle for the team’s final drive. Read into that what you will but for now, it remains clear as mud as to who has the upper hand for the starting job.

6) Considering that Ottawa’s defence featured at most one or two starters, it was an impressive performance from a group of backups and lower-tier depth chart players.

Barron Miles didn’t dial up anything exotic, but his unit did well to hold the Ticats to a 32 percent conversion rate on second down (eight-of-25 attempts) and left them scoreless on their lone trip to the red zone.

Defensive tackle Jamare Edwards was a force all game long, generating a ton of pressure from the interior of the line. He finished the game with three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Defensive edge Jermaine McDaniel also had himself a game, notching three tackles and recovering the fumble forced by Edwards.

Other standouts included Canadian linebacker Lucas Cormier, who had four tackles in front of a large contingent of family and friends on hand, Global linebacker Heston Lameta, who also made four tackles, and American defensive back Jordan Jones. Although Jones was beaten deep for a touchdown in the second quarter, late in the game he had a nice knockdown in the end zone to prevent a touchdown catch.

Speaking of coming up clutch, my favourite defensive play of the game came courtesy of Canadian safety Ty Cranston. The six-year pro forced a turnover on downs when he perfectly timed a punch to knock a sure-fire touchdown catch to the ground.

7) With Lewis Ward and Richie Leone back in Ottawa, Michael Domagala handled all kicking duties for the Redblacks. Despite some early short punts, Domagala rebounded to finish with a net average of 36.4 yards per punt. He also made the only field he attempted, from 27 yards out.

Defensive back Tobias Harris and receiver Kalil Pimpleton had opportunities to return kicks, but it was DeVonte Dedmon who stole the show. His untouched 91-yard scamper was a reminder of how dangerous he can be when fully healthy and when the men around him nail their blocking assignments.

 In terms of special teams tackles, Cranston and Silas Stewart led the way with two apiece.

8) One of the most important parts of any preseason contest is getting out of the game without suffering any major injuries. Although the Redblacks had a handful of players go down in Dishon McNary and Jermaine McDaniel in the second quarter, both later returned to the game. A few others seemed to suffer from cramps but overall, Dyce has to be happy his group avoided losing anyone to something significant.

9) Up next for the Redblacks is a Friday night matchup at TD Place against the reigning Grey Cup champions. R-Nation can expect to see a veteran lineup at TD Place because a) most CFL teams choose to play their presumed starters in front of their home fans during the preseason and b) those starters will need the work with the team set to have a bye week in Week One.

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).