Ottawa Redblacks return home after 1-1 start in the west; what has worked early on and what needs work

featured image: KAYLE NEIS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After Saturday night’s game in Saskatchewan the Ottawa Redblacks fell to 1-1. They come out of their west coast trip with a 16-12 victory over the Edmonton Elks and a 23-10 loss to the Roughriders, and despite only scoring 26 points over the two matchups and struggling to move the ball into the end zone there have been a number of bright spots come from this 2021 Ottawa Redblacks team.

What has worked?

Defence keeping points off of the board: Starting off with the defence, and what could arguably be one of the best defences in the CFL this season, the Ottawa Redblacks have done a good job in stopping offence’s from making big plays and also holding both Edmonton and Saskatchewan to a combined 1 touchdown and 9 field goals, they keep points off of the board.

The tackling: After a full year and a half without CFL football, many were worried about the quality of play to start out the 2021 season. One of the biggest worries for some fans and people around the league came at the tackling but for the Ottawa Redblacks that hasn’t been a problem. The Ottawa Redblacks have yet to give up a big play, the longest so far being a 35 yard catch and run to Derel Walker in the first game from Edmonton’s Trevor Harris. They’ve held the run game to a 14 yard long coming from both Cody Fajardo and James Wilder Jr and really have had very few missed tackles. Leading the group would be the trio of linebackers, Avery Williams (23 tackles), Don Unamba (8 tackles) and Micah Awe (10 tackles) who combine for 41 tackles over the two first games of the season. If the Redblacks defence is able to keep this up, all the offence has to do is put points on the board and make big plays of their own to be the team to beat in this league.

Getting good field position: In the first game of the season against the Edmonton Elks the Redblacks won the game with one defensive touchdown and 3 field goals, they forced the Elks to punt 8 times which got them in good field position courtesy of DeVonte Dedmon’s return game. They did it again in Saskatchewan, giving up just the one touchdown and then getting good field position from 5 field goals and 6 punts. Unfortunately the Redblacks didn’t have the takeaways like they did in the first game getting them into even better field position, however with the defence and special teams unit that the Redblacks do have this season the offence is almost guaranteed to be in a good spot on the field to start drives. It has been very rare to see Nichols and his offence start drives backed up in their own zone, and in week one it was a good way to get points on the board via Lewis Ward field goals. They have been doing it and if the defence and special teams are able to continue to give the offence good field position it is only a matter of time where the league sees how big of an advantage it really is.

What needs work?

DeVonte Dedmon photo: Ottawa Redblacks

The run game: In both Edmonton and Saskatchewan the Ottawa Redblacks were given great field position to start drives. They were practically given opportunities by the defence and special teams unit but were never able to capitalize on the opportunities given. A large part of it came from the run game. Timothy Flanders, in one and a half games has ran the ball 19 times for 74 yards. It may not be the worst numbers, he was able to move the ball here and there but he didn’t make the big plays needed from the offence. His longest run from the first two games stands at just 8 yards. There has been no spark from the run game to kick start drives except for the times that returner and receiver DeVonte Dedmon filled in. In three carries two goal line attempts he gained 31 yards and scored one touchdown. With a long of 14 yards and another run for 9 yards, Dedmon brings that spark to the offence and gives momentum to the drive, exactly what the Redblacks have been missing. After scoring the team’s first offensive touchdown of the season the Ottawa Redblacks should keep Dedmon in the lineup, and if Flanders is too banged up for the Redblacks home opener against the B.C Lions we may see running back Justin Davis in the lineup, who like Dedmon brings explosiveness to the run game and can help move the ball alongside Dedmon as a part of a one-two punch, Davis taking care of the majority of runs and Dedmon being found in the run game as well but also in the pass game. Although, if Flanders is good to go for week 3 they can keep him in the lineup and treat him as the starting running back, while giving DeVonte Dedmon the ball when in need of a spark.

Matt Nichols photo: Ottawa Redblacks

Getting sacked: Against Saskatchewan on Saturday night Matt Nichols was sacked a total 6 times. In Edmonton he was sacked 5 times, making it a total 11 sacks given up over the first two games of the 2021 CFL season, but the problem hasn’t always been the offensive line. Of course there have been some instances where the line isn’t giving Nichols enough time in the pocket but one re-occurring problem over the first two games of the season have been Nichols holding on to the football in the backfield. Nichols has struggled to get rid of the football over the first two games of the season, forcing him to get sacked 11 times, and now throwing an interception to add into the mix. That is 12 offensive plays that Nichols and the Redblacks’ offence would love to have back, and moving forward should look to eliminate. If the sacks turn into dump offs to running backs or receivers it will help the field position battle and could keep the Redblacks in games, therefore if Nichols is able to have a security blanket or two on each offensive snap there should be less sacks and interceptions moving forward in the season. Nichols was 19 of 24 for 176 yards against Saskatchewan, completing 79% of his passes so his accuracy is clearly there, but with 6 sacks in the game it would be good eliminate the sacks and turn them into completions and yards gained.

Getting to the opposing quarterback: Along with the problems on the offensive side of the ball in the backfield, the Redblacks have the same, but different problems on the defensive side of the ball. Coach Mike Benevides has done an excellent job as of yet with the Ottawa Redblacks defence, only giving up the one touchdown so far and holding the two teams to a total 9 field goals instead of touchdowns but they have struggled to create pressure in the backfield for the quarterbacks. In the first game they did well. Ottawa sacked Trevor Harris 3 times, pressuring him to throw 3 interceptions and 8 incompletions but in Saskatchewan, Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo got too comfortable in the pocket. Outside of the pass breakups from the defensive line, Fajardo wasn’t too worried about the Redblacks front seven, having been sacked zero times and completing 30 of 35 passes (85%) while even running the ball 47 yards on 9 carries and a touchdown. If the Redblacks defence can improve in this category starting next week at home against the Lions, they can not only sack the quarterback, getting them further away from the first down and goal line but also pressure them throughout the game.

RJ Harris photo: Jordan Zlomislic

Outside of these categories, the Ottawa Redblacks have done a great job to open up the season 1-1 on the west coast. They have been able to play games great defensively and on special teams, while also moving the ball here and there, showing glimpses of what they are able to do and if they are able to play to their full potential, get to the quarterback, establish the run game and eliminate the sacks on offence they can be a top team in the CFL this season.

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