Redblacks Midseason Review: The East’s Team to Beat

Photo credit: Patrick Doyle, CFL

The Redblacks are riding high heading into late August. The team is currently enjoying a two-game win streak and three-game lead atop the East, establishing the 6-3 Redblacks as the division’s team to beat.

This week’s bye coincides with the middle of the Redblacks’ season. They finished the first half of the 2018 campaign with a dominant victory over the Blue Bombers. The road win was a great example of the balance that has epitomized Ottawa’s impressive start, receiving steady contributions from both the offense and defense.

The Redblacks have scored the fourth most points per game on offense and allowed the third least per game on defense. The CFL-leading Stampeders are the only other team to rank in the top four in both categories. Speaking of the Stampeders, they remain the most noticeable blemish on the Redblacks’ season. Not only has Calgary accounted for two of the three Ottawa losses, but they are also the only team to convincingly contain Trevor Harris.

The two disheartening Stampeders losses are the only games that Harris has been held under 200 passing yards. His struggles lead to some in ‘RNation’ questioning Harris’ inconsistent tendencies, but he has since alleviated the concerns of the fan base. He is second in the CFL in passing yards and third in passing touchdowns. Leading the division’s top team, Harris has established himself as the East division’s Most Outstanding Player candidate at this point in the season.

The Ottawa passing game, by nature, runs through the quarterback, but the receiving options for Harris have been predictably outstanding this season. Brad Sinopoli is on pace for career highs in every receiving category and could approach CFL records in the process. After a slow stretch, perennial star Greg Ellingson has tallied two straight 100+ yard games. They form a formidable duo on their own but when you add in Diontae Spencer and the emergent Dominique Rhymes and R.J. Harris into the equation, you have a special stable of receiving talent.

The Redblacks’ offensive line deserves a ton of credit for the success of the offense so far as well. The unit has given up the third least sacks in the league and helped William Powell rush for the CFL’s second-most rushing yards. Their ability to run block and pass block consistently has granted the offense the flexibility to run or pass at will. That sort of balance can keep an opposing defense honest.

An area for improvement for the Redblacks offense in the second half of the season is their propensity to turn the ball over. They have 24 turnovers already, third most in the CFL. 12 turnovers, half of their season total, have come in their three losses. Excluding the Montreal win two weeks ago, where the Redblacks turned the ball over six times, winning for Ottawa has coincided with their ability to take care of the football.

On defense, the Redblacks have been quietly impressive. While other CFL defenses like Calgary, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan have gotten the league wide hype thus far, Ottawa has been reliable nearly every game. In the first year under new coordinator Noel Thorpe, the Redblacks have combined new faces (Rico Murray, Anthony Cioffi) with old stalwarts (Antoine Pruneau, Jonathan Rose) to create an improved defensive unit. That success has come even with the long-term injury to first-year Redblack Kyries Herbert.

As a team, the Redblacks are fourth in sacks. Leading the way is another first-year Redblack, defensive end A.C. Leonard. Nicknamed the ‘Minister of Defense’, Leonard is tied for second in the CFL with five sacks, already tying his career high.

The Redblacks defense has exceeded at limiting the run game, allowing only two 20+ yard rushes this season, but still have room for improvement when it comes to deep throws in the opponents’ passing game. Ottawa has allowed 16 big pass plays (classified as 30 or more yards), the fourth most in the CFL.

Noel Thorpe said earlier this season that allowing deep throws was a problem they were focused on resolving. At the time, they were tied for last. Now ranked sixth, it would indicate that there has been improvement, but perhaps other teams’ secondaries have regressed. The Redblacks are still averaging nearly two 30+ yard pass plays against per game. Last week against Winnipeg, Darvin Adams burned the secondary twice for deep touchdowns.

Ottawa will start the second half of their season next Friday against the Alouettes. From there, they will play five straight games against tough West Division opponents, including games in both Saskatchewan and Edmonton.

However, what could determine whether or not the Redblacks take the East’s top spot heading into the playoffs is the last three weeks of the regular season. Starting on October 19th, Ottawa will play their final three games against East teams, including back-to-back games against the Ti-Cats.

A three-game lead in the East Division looks awfully comfortable for the Redblacks right now, but the season’s true tests remain ahead. Labour Day is approaching fast and the games following it will determine who the CFL’s contenders and pretenders are. Still, it is not hard at this point in the year to envision a path for Ottawa to reach their third Grey Cup game in the last four years. At the very least, the Redblacks have put the rest of the East division on notice.