In a preseason media poll, the Ottawa Redblacks were the only CFL team that did not receive a single vote on the question of who would hoist Lord Grey’s cup come November.
The Ottawa Redblacks home opener 40-17 win at TD Place might cause some to re-think their selections. This win is but one small step in the long grind of the CFL season. However, the manner in which the Redblacks obtained the win showed that the problems that plagued the 2017 version of the team may no longer be concerns.
In the 2017 campaign, the Redblacks were near the bottom of the league in defensive takeaways. Thursday night saw them leave the field with three interceptions and one forced fumble. Two of the Roughriders interceptions came in their own end zone. While the other was a pick-six on a poor wide side throw by Zach Collaros. These turnovers were all manufactured as a result of the pressure brought by Ottawa’s front seven. The second-year pro, Avery Ellis was a thorn in the side of the Riders all night long. His 2017 contributions demonstrated his raw skill, but his performance on Thursday showed him to be someone other teams will have to pay attention to in the blocking schemes.
A concern going into the game was the interior of the Redblacks defence. The rotation of Nationals Daryl Waud and Micheal Klassen along with International Michael Wakefield put those fears to rest. Together, they held Jerome Messam in check when Saskatchewan tried to test the middle. Wakefield especially was a menace. The slicing and dicing stunts cooked up by defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe utilized corner, safety and halfback blitzes. This allowed the Redblacks to get up in the grill of the Saskatchewan pivots all night long.
When the Redblacks rushed only four they were still able to apply pressure, something that almost never happened in 2017. As a group, the defence registered three sacks and six knockdowns on the night. This type of defence is high risk as evidenced by the long completions that the Roughriders were able to make. However, it comes as a welcome change to the low risk, read and react defence of the past.
O-Line is A-ok
There was a tremendous amount of hand-wringing regarding the depth and injuries along the offensive line throughout pre-season. With starters Jason Lauzon-Sequin and Nolan Macmillan out of the line up the Redblacks started Evan Johnson, who acclimated himself very well in the 2017 campaign. Raw rookie Mark Korte out of the University of Alberta saw action as well. The Redblacks put up a wall against the vaunted Roughriders front who laid waste to the Argonauts backfield last week. The Riders struggled to get any pressure on the hobbled Trevor Harris. They were also worn down with a persistent run blocking that got William Powell to the second level often.
It was obvious that the Redblacks spent a considerable amount of time game planning ways to confuse the Riders. This included a three-tiered progressive approach:
Employing fullback J.C. Beaulieu in a tight-right position that forced the Riders to alter their techniques and change their pressure packages. Beaulieu had but two receptions for 18 yards on the night and was never targeted from the tight end position. His ability to pass-block and get to the second level on the run was instrumental in William Powell’s 94 rushing yards.
The Redblacks inserted Korte at left guard between former all-star Sir Vincent Rogers and Alex Mateas who was able to offer support from the centre position. With the addition of Beaulieu to that side, Korte was able to focus on one Riders lineman at a time.
Korte was freed up to pull and trap on the backside of plays as Beaulieu and Rogers shifted down. This caused issues for the Riders as they were unable to pin their ears back and had to keep their head on a swivel. This backside trapping action also pulled Riders linebackers Equavoen and Hurl out of position in their read step as they tracked the pulling Korte. When Ottawa switched it up and tossed in zone left blocks, the Saskatchewan second level was ripe for the picking and the defensive front was outnumbered.
Ex’s and Oh’s
receiver, cornerback Duron Carter made a great catch to intercept Harris in the second quarter. Lost in the celebration of his second pick-six in as many games as a defensive starter was that Harris threw the ball right where he was standing. Redblacks receiver Diontae Spencer ran an outside bang route while Harris was expecting him to turn inside on the bang.
- It was 2nd and 12 at the time and the Redblacks were is a 3 x 2 formation. They used outside receiver Greg Ellingson to run an inside stem to clear the short flats in the boundary while William Powell ran a clear to the strong side to move and hold the middle linebacker high. Saskatchewan dropped to the first down marker and rushed only three. The inside read by Harris was the right one as Spencer had a blocker (Powell) and lots of room to run once he cleared Carter to the field.
- While not perfect Harris seemed very much in sync with his receiving crops despite having limited reps in the pre-season. His 56 yard throw to Spencer for a touchdown in the 3rd quarter was a thing of beauty. He also took off running twice, the first time very grudgingly and tentatively. But then followed it up the very next play with a confident nine-yard run up the middle that gave Ottawa a first down and ultimately set up a Lewis Ward field goal.
- While the glory tends to go to Greg Ellingson and Diontae Spencer, do not underestimate the great work done to get them open by Brad Sinopoli. His stems are excellent and he cleared out the middle and short flats many times for Ellingson to go to work. He also added a very tidy 6 receptions for 74 yards himself.
- Quarterback Trevor Harris had a slight speed wobble when he accidentally lined up behind former centre Jon Gott on one play. The ball rolled on the turf until Harris picked it up and instead of throwing it away attempted an ill-advised pass to Diontae Spencer. Receivers aren’t trained to knock balls down so he caught the ball for a two-yard loss. Harris ended up with five stitches in his elbow when he hit a Saskatchewan helmet on the follow through.
Next Thursday the Redblacks head to Calgary to play the Stampeders. Ottawa has never won in Calgary being outscored 177-82 in the process. Incidentally, Calgary has not beaten Ottawa outside of Calgary in their last four games going 0-2-2. One of those losses, of course, being the 2016 Grey Cup in Toronto.
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