Redblacks build belief (& 12 other thoughts on beating the Bombers)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Many in R-Nation were upset that the schedule makers had their Ottawa Redblacks start the season on a bye but good things come to those who wait. The Redblacks defeated the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by a score of 23-19 on a rainy Thursday night at TD Place Stadium.

It’s only one win, but for a team that spent the offseason talking about how things would be different in 2024, it’s a promising first step.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

1) Although he had some throws he’d like back, Dru Brown’s debut as Ottawa’s starting quarterback was highly encouraging. The 16th different quarterback to start a game for the Redblacks’ franchise was poised, repeatedly pushed the ball down the field and hit his receivers in rhythm.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

The 27-year-old spread the ball around by targeting seven different players and completed 20 of the 33 passes he attempted for 238 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, he protected the football.

Brown isn’t known as a mobile quarterback but multiple times he efficiently used his legs to move around the pocket, extend plays and avoid pressure.

Brown spent the week playing down the fact that he was facing his former team, but you have to think it was deeply satisfying for his first win with Ottawa to come against the Bombers.

2) There was a lot to like from offensive coordinator Tommy Condell’s first game directing Ottawa’s attack. The Redblacks put up 331 yards of offence and generated 19 first downs, but it was the how that’s interesting. There were handoffs to receivers, screens and plenty of play-action that was successful thanks to a run game that averaged 6.1 yards per carry.

Condell’s unit averaged 7.3 yards on second down as the Redblacks converted on 43 percent of their opportunities, which went a long way toward sustaining drives. Furthermore, when the team got into the red zone, they cashed in, scoring touchdowns on two of three trips inside Winnipeg’s 20-yard line.

What R-Nation will really enjoy is that every time the team needed to respond to Winnipeg putting points on the board, they did. On both possessions following Winnipeg’s two touchdowns, the Redblacks marched down the field to answer with points of their own. That’s something to build off of.

This is nitpicking but I felt Condell really missed an opportunity after Alonzo Addae’s third-quarter interception. Ottawa had momentum following the turnover but instead of pushing the ball down the field and taking a shot, the Redblacks called a run up the gut that was stuffed for minimal gain and a short out that was incomplete. It would’ve been nice to see Ottawa get aggressive following the turnover.

3) Despite being a game-time decision, American rookie running back Ryquell Armstead did indeed wind up playing — and quite well at that. In his first taste of CFL action, the 27-year-old displayed a powerful downhill running style that produced 95 yards on 16 carries.

Listed at five-foot-11 and 220 pounds, Armstead frequently ran through initial contact and more than once pushed the pile — or popped out of it — when it seemed like forward progress had been halted.


Losing Devonte Williams to a torn Achilles in the offseason was a big blow but if Armstead can continue to produce like he did last night, Ottawa’s run game might just be okay.

4) Last season, Justin Hardy was Ottawa’s best and most consistent receiver. That trend continued on Thursday night, as the 32-year-old had a game-high seven catches for 111 yards and a touchdown. Most impressively, 61 of those yards came after the catch and three of his catches moved the chains on second down.

 

As for the rest of the receiving corps, prized off-season addition Dominique Rhymes snagged five passes for 60 yards, Jaelon Acklin had three for 18 yards and Bralon Addison two for 39 yards. Addison also chipped in with two carries for 31 yards.

In his first start as a pro, Nick Mardner, the second overall pick of the 2024 CFL draft, made one catch for nine yards.

5) Through training camp and the preseason, all eyes were on the battle for the starting job at right tackle between Zack Pelehos and Dontae Bull, the team’s first-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023 respectively.

When the depth chart was released, it seemed like Bull had won the job and he did in fact start the game. But by the second quarter, Bull was out of the game and Pelehos played the rest of the way. Whether that was due to injury or a coaching decision based on performance remains to be seen.

Overall, it was a strong game from the offensive line. The group paved the way for 129 yards on the ground and did a decent job protecting Brown, conceding a pair of sacks on his 33 dropbacks.

If there’s one thing to clean up, it was the four flags that put the team in a hole on multiple drives. Right guard Dariusz Bladek was flagged twice, centre Cyrille Hogan-Saindon once — although it was a chintzy call — and Pelehos once.

6) Don’t let a couple of broken coverages that resulted in big plays fool you, this was a smothering effort from Barron Miles’ defensive unit.

Ottawa limited Winnipeg to 309 yards of offence, including just 42 yards on the ground. The Bombers averaged only 3.7 yards per second down play as the Redblacks sacked Zach Collaros three times and knocked down six of his passes. They also generated three turnovers: two interceptions and a turnover on downs.

Every time the defence needed to make a big play, they stepped up. It was a balanced effort across every level as several players made significant contributions to the win.

Defensive linemen Lorenzo Mauldin and Michael Wakefield each had a sack while making a handful of tackles. Wakefield also tipped a pass that led to a pick. Linebacker Adarius Pickett notched two tackles and snagged that interception.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

And for all the injuries in the secondary, Money Hunter, Damon Webb, Tobias Harris, DeAndre Lamont and Alonzo Addae proved they are capable of getting the job done.

Hunter made four tackles and had a knockdown, Webb had three tackles, a sack and a knockdown in the end zone that was the play of the game, and Addae made four tackles and an interception.

7) Speaking of the secondary, competition for playing time will be fierce. Alijah McGhee was expected to be a starter, but got injured in practice and is currently on the six-game injured list. Veteran Brandin Dandridge is also on the six-game. When those guys return, they’ll be pushing for snaps. Additionally, Ottawa shored up their depth this week by adding veterans Sherrod Baltimore and Winston Rose to their practice squad.

If guys want to keep starting, they’ll need to maintain high levels of performance, as there won’t be a shortage of options for the coaching staff to shuffle in.

8) It was a clinical outing from the Redblacks’ special teams. Kicker Lewis Ward was perfect, nailing field goals from 12, 31 and 34 yards out while connecting on both converts. Punter Richie Leone wasn’t at his very best but still smashed seven kicks for 301 yards and a fourth-quarter rouge that proved to be vitally important.

Returner DeVonte Dedmon continued to flash the game-changing ability he teased in the preseason, averaging 13.7 yards per punt return and ripping off a 49-yard return that set up a Dustin Crum touchdown.

In terms of kick coverage, it was truly a team effort, with seven different players notching a special teams tackle.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

9) I covered it last week but it bears repeating: the Redblacks’ new retro-inspired jerseys are incredibly sharp.

It’s a massive improvement on what they’ve used in recent seasons. The helmet is perfection and the jersey is excellent but after seeing them in action, the feeling that the team missed an opportunity to nail this outfit — I’m talking 10/10, no notes — keeps growing.

The solid black pants paired with black socks are screaming for some kind of contrast. Whether it’s white/red socks, the stripe used on the helmet/shoulders, or even the nod to fans that the road uniform pants offer with the word RNation down the side of the leg, the all-black look is just too basic.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

10) A hat tip to every member of R-Nation who attended last night, especially those who stuck out the rain delay. Yes, it was a rainy night. Yes, the team has been bad, especially at home, the past few seasons. But having just 16,310 fans come out for the season opener is incredibly disappointing.

Even in 2023, the Redblacks averaged 18,000 fans per home game, which is still a far cry from the constant sellouts of 24,000 the franchise had from 2014 to 2018.

Typically, Ottawa has strong walk-up crowds, so perhaps this was more of a weather outlier than anything else. Still, it has to be concerning to OSEG that after a productive offseason, many in R-Nation are seemingly still in wait-and-see mode before purchasing tickets.  Hopefully, this season-opening win results in a bigger crowd when Ottawa hosts Hamilton on June 30.

11) There’s been plenty of talk of establishing a new culture, and some of that is already evident in the fact that three of the team’s six captains for 2024 were added in the offseason.

However, talk is cheap. Seeing is believing and for me personally, what TSN’s cameras caught as the teams returned to the field after an hour weather delay to play the final two minutes of the game spoke volumes.

As the Redblacks exited their locker room, the broadcast showed everyone, from coaches to players to equipment staff, bouncing and singing as they took to the field to warm up and try to seal the win. The group oozed energy.

It’s a small thing but it would’ve been easy to come out flat or just walk out casually, as the Bombers did. Instead, the team looked genuinely enthusiastic to get back out into the rain after twiddling their thumbs for an hour.

12) With the win, the Redblacks move to 6-3-1 all-time in season openers. On one hand, the game was similar to many Ottawa played in 2023, which saw 14 of their 18 games decided in the last three minutes. But unlike last season, the Redblacks found a way to win.

The Grey Cup isn’t won in June and nobody should overreact to a single victory, but in a season where head coach Bob Dyce has to deliver results, this was an excellent way to start building belief.

Up next for the Redblacks is a trip to Montreal next Thursday night to take on the reigning Grey Cup champions.

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).