Free Agency looms for Grey Cup champs 

By Cranky Frank Clair

With roughly two weeks to go until CFL free agents can be signed by any club, the Redblacks situation is unsettled, to say the least. GM Marcel Desjardins and his football ops team could, of course, sign a key player or two anytime. This would chill the natural urge to panic. But given the sheer number and quality of the Redblacks’ free agents, panic seems a reasonable response for RNation. 

The Free Agency period begins February 14 and will most certainly see the Grey Cup champions lose some key players and fan favourites to other CFL teams. This doesn’t even include the three players – Mitchell White, Forrest Hightower and Cleyon Laing – already lost to the NFL. This is further fuelled by the fact that only two key players – Antoine Pruneau and Taylor Reed – have been re-signed so far. 

Conventional wisdom is that once February arrives, most players will simply wait to test the open market. Guys fit for shiny new Grey Cup rings will be hot commodities. 

On the upside, the Redblacks front office has proven to be very smart, creative and decisive. You can’t argue with their success. This is the first time in the Redblacks short history that RNation has witnessed any player-driven roster upheaval, however. The front office has earned the benefit of the doubt, but now a little panic is natural. 

Here is a position-by-position rundown of the Redblacks roster as we head into 2017 Free Agency. I’m going to limit my speculation on potential FA additions to the team, as there are simply too many moving parts to that discussion. This rundown will show where the holes will likely be, however.
 

Quarterback

We know Henry Burris won’t be back and that Trevor Harris is being offered an extension past 2017. Other than that, the QB situation is somewhat open. Brock Jensen, who can be lightly penciled in for the time being as #2 behind Harris, is already signed. Danny O’Brien is a FA, and I don’t see the Redblacks or another team aggressively pursuing him. We’ll soon see how comfortable the Redblacks are with Jensen as backup.

Jensen, Harris, Burris & O’Brien

My formula – Try to sign a contender for the #2 spot, but it doesn’t have to be a future hall of famer. Recently-released Saskatchewan QB Mitchell Gale fits that description and should challenge Jensen. The remaining QB spot will take care of itself, though finding a guy to develop into a legit potential starter for a contending team won’t be easy.

Running Back

The team that has been crushed by RB injuries has shown a remarkable ability to find very good replacements. That ability may soon be tested again. 2016 standout Mossis Madu is under contract for this season, but he is 29 years-old and coming off injury. The RB who emerged in 2015, William Powell, re-signed on Tuesday but is coming off a serious injury that saw him miss the entire 2016 season. Able depth RBs Travon Van (INT) and Kienen LaFrance (CDN) are both pending free agents. With two key players coming off injury and the status of the depth players uncertain, we have to look at RB as worrisome but not panic-inducing. We have other positions to panic over. 

Kienan LaFrance

My formula – Powell’s signing is welcome and likely not too expensive after missing a season. He and Madu will compete hard for the number one spot. Depth will be critical: it has been a Darwinian existence for Ottawa Redblacks running backs. 

This means signing LaFrance, if possible. He’s a nice Canadian option to have back there and he has upside. I’m torn on Van – I like his improvement through 2016 and he’s decent as a receiver coming out of the backfield, but I’ve never liked his upright running style and he doesn’t hit the line with a lot of certainty. Van may not be worth trying to re-sign and it is possible he’ll find starter’s money elsewhere. 

Receiver

There isn’t much point in waxing poetic about what Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson and Chris Williams mean to the Redblacks  and RNation. We know who they are and what they have done to secure two consecutive Grey Cup berths and earn Ottawa its first Grey Cup in forever. All three are pending free agents. In addition, depth receiver and fan-friendly Khalil Paden as well as Jamill Smith could enter the open market. Williams is scary-fast and gives the Redblacks an unmatched deep threat, but he is coming off knee surgery and won’t likely be available till mid-season. Worth a hefty signing? That is a complicated question with a multifaceted answer based on whether he recovers and how much demand there is for Williams. Without the injury, I would say re-signing him is a slam dunk “yes”, because of the dimension his speed adds to the entire offence. Sure, he drops balls, but with Harris throwing, Williams has proven to be the CFL’s most dangerous threat. 

Ellingson has been testing the NFL waters, but there doesn’t seem to be a ton of interest. And then there is Jackson, who could be in for a big payday as a money receiver who is at the absolute top of his game at the best possible time. He catches everything, is good for yards after the catch (YAC), and his commitment and effectiveness at blocking make the entire team better. 

So looking at the three of them together, this remains complicated. Harris has exceptional deep-ball accuracy, making him all the more effective when he has a true deep threat to play catch with. Without Williams, Harris doesn’t have a scary-fast deep threat. But does he need one, and will Williams be that guy again? There is no certain answer. Ellingson, while a fan fave, I hate to say it, is not worth a hefty raise. There are other Greg Ellingsons out there, and some of them might even make the CFL Hotties list.

Greg Ellingson & Ernest Jackson

My formula – Sign Jackson. Figure out how to make it work with Williams, knowing that what he’s paid won’t be charged against the cap until he starts to play. If signing Ellingson means more than a five or ten percent raise or the inability to sign Jackson, let him go elsewhere. Juron Criner is signed and has proven his value. John Harris has spent a year on the practice roster and he has potential and pedigree. If Khalil Paden can find starter dollars elsewhere, he should take it. I would re-sign Jamill Smith. It won’t break the bank and he is reliable, if not spectacular, as a returner. 

Meanwhile, the Redblacks lack of Canadian depth at receiver is a little alarming. Brad Sinopoli is one of the best in the league, but there is no one behind him who is a potential starter. This should be the Redblacks biggest priority at the upcoming CFL draft, which is deep and rich in receiver talent.
 
Offensive Line

The Redblacks two starting guards are pending free agents. Normally this would be cause for alarm, and it only will be a concern if the team can’t re-sign Nolan MacMillan. J’Michael Deane doesn’t seem like a priority. He draws a ton of flags, and the Redblacks have OL depth that needs a place to play. Here is the Redblacks OL lineup if a game was being played tomorrow:

LT – SirVincent Rogers, American, one of the best in the league
LG – J’Michael Deane, pending FA
C – John Gott, East nominee for top lineman in 2016
RG – Nolan MacMillan, very good player, missed much of 2016 with injury
RT – Jake Silas, young, capable and improving American. Injured late in 2016.
Depth – Jason Lauzon-Séguin, can start at RT or at G
Depth – Matt Albright – ready to start at G
Depth – Alex Mateas – former 1st overall pick. Has not progressed as hoped
Depth – Tommie Draheim – American started last few games at RT. Buttressed by very good teamwork in backfield and by rest of OL.

SirVincent Rogers, Jon Gott and others wish Redblacks RB coach Beau Walker a happy birthday

My formula – I would let Deane go elsewhere and try to sign MacMillan, using a decent portion of Deane money if necessary. If this happens, I would let Lauzon-Seguin and Albright fight it out at camp for the vacant LG spot. 

However, losing MacMillan would not make signing Deane a priority, in my opinion. This is because of the ability of both Albright and Lauzon-Séguin to shine at Guard. Both are more than ready. Mateas is an able depth guy who could compete for a starting G spot in camp but would likely wind up as the depth guy at G/C. At some point, Mateas’ cap hit as a first overall pick may become an issue if he isn’t able to earn a starting position. The team has other depth players signed, although losing MacMillan would heighten the priority of finding OL options in the draft and during free agency. 

Defensive Line

The big name and 2016 contributor facing free agency is fan-favourite Moton Hopkins. He is a solid American defensive tackle who can collapse the interior with his exceptional strength – he has a lot of snaps where he puts the offensive lineman opposite onto roller skates, helplessly pushed into the backfield. He isn’t one of the league’s brand name elite DTs, but Moton holds his own, is an important part of the roster and helps the team win. 

Also notable is Aston Whiteside, who had a terrific few games in 2015 before a knee injury that seems to have never really healed. He came back for a time in 2016, but with little impact. I can’t imagine that Whiteside will be highly sought-after in free agency. 

My Formula – Sign Hopkins. He won’t likely break the budget, and he provides strength and explosiveness (alongside Zack Evans) inside on a DL where the key rotation DT is effective but undersized. The only way I would consider not bringing Moton back is if Cleyon Laing was brought back or if 2016 draft pick Mehdi Abedesmad was proving not ready for the NFL. Neither of those is happening, so Hopkins is a priority. 

Whiteside is low risk to re-sign and bring in to camp to see if that knee has finally healed. The Redblacks haven’t turned up another gem at DE, the price should be low to see if Whiteside can again shine. The team can’t rely on this, however, and the team’s long search for its next speed rush DE must continue. Mike Moore, another FA lineman, is worth bringing in at a low price. He has proven to be a decent depth player who will get a chance to compete at camp.

Linebacker

After some mid-season shuffling, this unit became a big part of the Redblacks success, and two-thirds of the Grey Cup starting trio is now under contract – Damaso Muñoz and Taylor “Tank” Reed, making Reed one of only two FA starters to be extended so far. 

The open position is SAM LB, the slot that is a hybrid LB/pass coverage role that was filled by Antoine Pruneau for much of his first three years with the team. Pruneau moved back to free safety partway through last season and he has been re-signed already, avoiding another free agency headache. However, Jerrell Gavins, an unlikely linebacker if there ever was one, performed very well through the end of last season and he is a pending FA.  

Signing Gavins won’t be a slam dunk, and it is very likely that his talents will be needed in the secondary anyway.

So where does that leave the LB corps? John Boyett has turned heads at free safety and weakside LB (WILL LB) for the Redblacks. Boyett’s skill set, aggressiveness and pedigree as a legit NFL strong safety make him an ideal candidate for SAM. However, Boyett is both a pending FA and coming off an unspecified knee injury.

John Boyett

My Formula – Sign Boyett. Regardless of when his knee heals, I want him on my football team. The price shouldn’t be too high. Then we really hope he returns to form. As for Gavins, the team needs him back, but as a defensive back due to offseason departures. If necessary, Pruneau can play SAM until Boyett returns. The Redblacks have a pile of FS on the depth chart, one of them could emerge as more than a special teams contributor during camp.

Secondary

There is no way to sugar coat this – the Redblacks defensive backfield has already been hit hard and it could get much worse. Mitchell White was one of the best cover cornerbacks in the CFL. He has now signed in the NFL (Philadelphia).

Forrest Hightower, one of the heroes of the Redblacks 2016 playoff run – also signed in the NFL (New Orleans). Abdul Kanneh, the king of the Grey Cup-saving shoestring tackle, is a pending free agent. Gavins, who has played most of his Redblacks career in the secondary and who will likely be needed there in 2017, is also a pending free agent.  

Pruneau and Jonathan Rose are all that’s left, and the depth in the secondary isn’t what it used to be. Tristan Jackson is a DB whose value to the team is as a return specialist. Hopefully he can be re-signed and return to the form we saw before a late season injury. In the team’s short history, Jackson has been the team’s best and most threatening return guy. He should not be viewed as part of the answer in the secondary, however.

Abdul Kanneh

My formula – The Redblacks front office has apparently viewed the defensive backfield as a position where league minimum is the norm. Can that really continue? I say find a way to pay Kanneh and Gavins.   

The team has seemingly had a DB tree in the back yard, with new outstanding players becoming ripe to start on a regular basis. But that’s not reality. The pipeline isn’t going to keep spitting out elite players forever. The team has exceptionally good coaching back there, and the team has proven to be very good at finding guys – but there are a finite number of players who can play the secondary under Canadian motion and contact rules.

Kanneh and Gavins are proven legit starters on a contending team, there is too much downside to let them walk over $10k in salary. Sign them. 

That’s all for now. I’ll be fretting on my pedestal in the southside stands, watching carefully as this plays out. 

Follow me on Twitter -> @CrankyClair

All photos courtesy of Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive

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Offseason of change begins for Grey Cup champs

By Cranky Frank Clair

I really don’t have anything to offer that hasn’t already been said about the Redblacks Grey Cup win. So instead of rehashing/celebrating what happened, I’m going to look ahead a bit. The Redblacks have a pile of pending free agents as do most other teams in the CFL. There are quarterback and management questions in other cities, and a team or two will be using the next few weeks to begin their march on Ottawa and the 2017 Grey Cup.  I won’t get too deep into Redblacks 2017 roster projects – there are too many moving parts at this point. But here’s a look at the current situation as well as my view of some other situations in other cities.

Redblacks offseason

Ernest Jackson & Jerrell Gavins (photo Scott Grant)

The CFL’s Big List of Free Agents now out, we can certainly look at the team’s offseason challenges.

This means there is much work to be done, but it’s the best kind of work – keeping a champion together and making it better. Not everyone will get to stay, however.

Sadly, Chris Williams is likely in the “won’t be back” category. He’ll be rehabbing his knee well into next summer and may be back just before his 30th birthday. That isn’t a great combo, especially considering that his last contract was likely in the $200k+ neighbourhood. Williams has his detractors, but his world-class speed kept defenders on their heels and opened up the field for his teammates. Losing him for 2017 will be doubly unfortunate because Trevor Harris has the arm to take full advantage of Williams’ talents.

The list of must-sign players is fairly long. Ernest Jackson, Mitchell White, Abdul Kanneh and Nolan MacMillan would be hard to replace. Tank Reed is the LB the Redblacks need – his presence boosted Damaso Muñoz. And #RNation needs to be concerned about John Boyett’s return – we never really heard much about his knee injury and now he’s looking at free agency. There are rumblings that Abdul Kanneh will be looking south, and now we hear that the team has released Cleyon Laing so he can look south as well. If I could, I would bring them both back. Laing proved his worth, collapsing pockets from the inside and making lots of room. As I hoped, he even played some DE and it proved an experiment worth continuing.

I somehow doubt we’ll see Aston Whiteside back. He never really recovered from his knee injury. Its hard to see from here whether the Redblacks rushed him back or whether the knee didn’t respond to treatment or whether he actually got reinjured. The Redblacks so-far fruitless search for its next speed rushing DE continues. But…given the way the Redblacks DLine performed in the Grey Cup, I’m inclined to think the team should stop trying to slot in an unproven speed DE and go with muscle. I saw some devastating power rushes from Laing and Connor Williams from the DE position, showing that Clydesdales can get the same result as a racehorse.

Antoine Pruneau (photo Scott Grant)

Meanwhile, fan favourite Antoine Pruneau is also a pending free agent. Without knowing enough about Montreal’s FS situation, must think that he’s a guy they’d love to sign. Pruneau gave an interview following the Grey Cup parade that made me think he is thinking about options other than returning to Ottawa. I have no quote that signals this, its was just a feeling. Jeff Richards (rumoured to have several opportunities in the NFL) may be a more consistent FS, but it is hard to deny that even without his passport, Pruneau is a big contributor and the Redblacks would be well-served to try to get him back.

Lots of potential for moving parts on the offensive line. J’Michael Deane and Nolan MacMillan are each pending free agents. MacMillan is a very good veteran presence. Deane had a lot of penalty issues this season. Jason Lauzon-Séguin is a legit starter at G and showed he can play OT. Backup Matthew Albright absolutely seems ready to start at G. Jake Silas has proven to be a solid RT, SirV is locked in for another 2 seasons as one of the league’s premier LTs. Tommie Draheim got better into the playoffs and the Grey Cup but is not a strong starter. The long-range plan was for John Gott to switch to G and have Alex Mateas take his place at centre. I don’t see that happening, possibly ever. 

Nolan MacMillan (photo Janet MacMillan)

The makeup of the 2017 OL hinges on whether MacMillan can be signed and whether management wants to keep Deane. I have my thoughts on how this should play out, but will save them for another column. I will say that Deane is possibly expendable which is unfortunate for a guy who may want to stay (he owns a house here).

It’s hard to say whether we’ll see FA RB William Powell back – if he’s willing to sign for not a ton of money upfront, then he’d certainly be worth bringing into camp and let him compete with Mossis Madu. Travon Van, who was a good insurance policy in 2016, likely isn’t a priority to re-sign.

Tanner Doll & Kienan Lafrance (photo Scott Grant)

Just a couple of special teams observations at this point. First, I spent a lot of Twitter characters questioning the removal of Kevin Malcolm from long snapper duties – he’s exceptionally good at delivering hard clean spirals to the punter. The team replaced him mid-season with Tanner Doll, who was immediately visible in ways that long snappers aren’t supposed to be. He improved as he went along, but most importantly, he showed why the team made the switch in the first place. Doll is a special teams coverage demon, not easy to do coming out of the snap.

Elsewhere across the CFL

Have to question what Chris Jones thinks he’s doing in Saskatchewan with the Darian Durant negotiations. Durant is a fan favourite, a very solid performer and there really isn’t a better QB on the market. Maybe Chris Jones is the genius he was supposed to be and he’s trying to save the team some needed cap space, or maybe he has a strong-armed rabbit to pull out of the proverbial hat. Or maybe he’s unnecessarily playing hardball with a QB who isn’t his guy. We’ll see.

Corey Watman (photo Scott Grant)

Then there’s Toronto. Word is that co-owner Larry Tanenbaum wants to appoint a football management layer between ownership and the team GM. It makes sense, and it’s an approach he sees working (I guess) with the Maple Leafs. Who will it be? A lot of the CFL’s grownups are either locked into great jobs or on the verge of taking on fewer responsibilities rather than more. I saw a suggestion that Eric Tillman could be the guy, and that makes sense. I’m not convinced of Tillman’s football genius, but I’m convinced that he’s the type of person who will be hired for that job.

In Winnipeg, a team that seems on the cusp of greatness just let its fans breathe a sigh of relief by re-signing Coach Michael O’Shea. Now, the team may be doing some serious soul-searching on whether they have a QB whose trajectory matches the rest of the team. If Saskatchewan loses Durant, he could be enough to propel Winnipeg to true contention in 2017.

Photo Scott Grant

The potential for stability on the Alouettes in 2017 should scare the rest of the East and help re-ignite fan interest in Montreal. Hamilton and Ottawa had it pretty easy in 2016 sharing a division with two teams in a bad downward spiral. A Montreal comeback will make the East much more of a horserace, although whether it would be enough to avoid a western crossover in 2017 remains to be seen. Look for Montreal’s new GM and the coaching staff to assemble and ready an offence that can take advantage of its young QBs. Either Rakeem Cato or Vernon Adams could emerge out of training camp as a legit dynamic playmaking QB and make the Als offence a nice complement to the team’s already good defence.

That’s it for now, I’ve tried to avoid talking about teams or situations where I don’t have information or a decent opinion, though I guess that’s really up to you to judge. I’ll check in again as teams sign more of their pending free agents. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.

All the best, and Merry Christmas.

Cranky Frank Clair

Most photos courtesy of Scott Grant Photography. Follow on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive

 

 

 

Photo essay of a Grey Cup victory

It has been pure joy to read the many articles, blog entries, Facebook posts and Tweets capturing Ottawa’s first Grey Cup victory in 40 years. Nearly two weeks have passed and it still feels a bit dream-like. For a city and fanbase not used to having nice things, it has definitely been an adjustment period. 

Not often does a championship carry so much weight for a city and have such deep an impact on the families that support the team, with fans spanning two, three, even four generations. It is equal parts elation, relief and vindication for a city that too often gets a bad rap.

Thanks to all of you in #RNation for sharing your experiences, celebrations and memories. It’s been a real pleasure. 

With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to try and capture my Grey Cup experience in photos rather than words (well, maybe just a few words). Hope you enjoy.

(Photos mostly courtesy my bro)











Grey Cup & poutine. #Canadianity



Sigh of relief. And now, gametime. Time to put the phones away…

…until late in the 4th quarter.

An onside kick away from sealing it and… oh crap. 

Put the phones away again!!!

It worked.







After an emotional night, the after-party was subdued but delicious!


After midnight on the walk back downtown to catch a cab. All’s quiet, but a final reminder of what this team just accomplished.


Best day ever. 

Two days later, celebrating with the rest of Ottawa:




Oh, and my dad was pretty pumped 🙂


Follow us on Twitter -> @DefendTheR

The @20YardEndZone Podcast – #GreyCup Edition

The 20-Yard End Zone Podcast – Grey Cup Edition!

The guys discuss the CFL’s East and West Finals – two very different contests – and preview the 104th Grey Cup match-up between the Ottawa Redblacks and the Calgary Stampeders. Footloose shares some Grey Cup memories, looking back at the CFL’s first Grey Cup festival in 1948. This week’s guest interview is News Talk 770 and Calgary Stampeders radio host Dave Rowe. Dave and Footloose have a fun chat about what we can look forward to on Grey Cup Sunday.

Thanks for listening!

@DefendTheR

The @20YardEndZone Podcast – Episode 7

The 20-Yard End Zone Podcast – Episode 7

The guys discuss Jim Popp stepping down in Montreal and Jacques Chapdelaine’s selection as interim head coach, CFLers who went on to have great NFL careers, and more. This week’s interview features former Ottawa Rough Rider and Carleton Raven Pat Stoqua. Stoqua, now Senior Development Officer for football at Carleton, discusses the upcoming Panda Game CIS grudge match between Carleton and the University of Ottawa.

Thanks for listening!

@DefendTheR

The 20-Yard End Zone Podcast – Episode 2

The 20-Yard End Zone Podcast – Episode 2

The guys discuss the headlines from the Canadian Football League in Week 8, plus an interview with News Talk 770 and Calgary Stampeders broadcaster Dave Rowe on the Calgary-Saskatchewan rivalry.

Thanks for listening!

@DefendTheR

Delays, Controversy and a Winner

Courtesy of Sportsology.com and The 20-Yard End Zone

By Footloose

It was an interesting week in the CFL.

Things started Thursday night in Winnipeg on Milt Stegall Night. 

After a lightning delay of more than two hours, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers stormed out of the gate and took a 34-0 halftime lead on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and would win 37-11.

Stegall, the second all-time leading receiver in CFL history behind Geroy Simon, was honored with his family at halftime. Stegall, a Cincinnati native, played at Miami (OH) and then was a Cincinnati Bengal for three seasons before going to Green Bay and then to Winnipeg. During his career, he was a favorite of ESPN personality Chris Berman.

CJ Roberts scored on a pick six early in the game, and then Matt Nichols fired TD passes to Thomas Mayo and Clarence Denmark. Andrew Harris scored a touchdown on the ground.

Hamilton scored a TD in the third quarter when Jeremiah Masoli connected with Terrence Toliver for a 44-yard gain to set up a one-yard TD run by Jeff Mathews.

BC wins in Montreal

Friday night, the BC Lions went into Montreal and outscored the Alouettes 15-0 in the fourth quarter to win 38-18.

Jonathan Jennings completed 27 of 32 passes and tossed a TD to Manny Arceneuax. Jeremiah Johnson scored a touchdown on the ground, and Loucheiz Purifoy made the play of the game by scooping up a loose ball and scoring on a fumble recovery. Richie Leone added four field goals.

BC sacked Montreal QB Kevin Glenn six times. Glenn threw a TD pass to BJ Cunningham and ran for one score.

Bo knows winning

Bo Levi Mitchell of the Calgary Stampeders is the all-time leader CFL in winning percentage among quarterbacks, and he played like it Friday.

Mitchell threw for 312 yards and fired a TD to Anthony Parker in the 35-15 win over Saskatchewan. Jerome Messam and Andrew Buckley ran for TDs. Rene Paredes kicked four field goals.

Rob Bagg scored on a 48-yard pass from Darian Durant for the Riders.

Controversy in Ottawa

All eyes were on Henry Burris as he bounced back with a 23-20 win over the defending Grey Cup champion Edmonton Eskimos in a penalty-filled contest in Ottawa Saturday night.

Burris threw TD passes to Ernest Jackson and former New Orleans Saint Chris Williams. After a Jermaine Robinson interception and long return in the dying minutes of the game, Chris Milo kicked a 17-yard field goal to give Ottawa a 23-20 lead. The Redblacks’ defence then came up big by forcing three Mike Reilly incompletions for the win.

Edmonton scored the most unusual TD of the year when a Burris pass appeared to hit the ground but it actually bounced off Williams’ foot and went high into the air. JC Sherritt interception the ball on the run and raced down the sideline to dive into the end zone. Reilly hit Chris Getzlaf, the brother of NHL star Ryan Getzlaf, for the two-point convert.

At halftime, Burris was interviewed by TSN’s Matthew Scianitti, and he unleashed a rant about the criticism and doubts he has faced from fans and, in particular, the TSN panel.

“Henry and I are friends and we have talked about it and shared a laugh,” said Milt Stegall, one of the panelists, in an interview that can be heard on our podcast.

This week’s games

Thursday – Montreal at Edmonton

Neither team has consistently been able to put a full 60 minutes of football together this year, but both teams have explosive passing games. Look for a high-scoring barnburner.

Friday – Winnipeg at Toronto

Toronto is quietly one of the best teams in the league, and back-up Logan Kilgore shone in his first CFL start after replacing an injured Ricky Ray. Winnipeg is also trending upward, and this is a new team after Matt Nichols replaced Drew Willy as the starting QB.

Saturday – Calgary at Saskatchewan

The Riders are a much better team playing in front of the best fans in the CFL at home. They beat Ottawa at home, but can they beat Bo Levi Mitchell and the Stampeders?

Saturday – Hamilton at BC

Zach Collaro smakes his return to the Tiger-Cats’ line up as they face the red hot BC Lions in Vancouver. Hamilton needs a win to keep pace with Toronto and Ottawa in the standings, but BC has been a juggernaut behind coach Wally Buono and quarterback Jonathan Jennings.

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

Redblacks at the 6-game mark

by Cranky Frank Clair

The CFL’s East division race has become a tight one following a 4-game stretch that has seen the Redblacks pick up just one win, and now sit with a record of 3-2-1. This makes it time for reflection and a quick review of our personnel, but first, let’s get right to the point regarding the Toronto game (a 23-20 loss this past Sunday evening). The Redblacks defence was good enough for Ottawa to win. The offence was not. Some have been quick to jump on the playcalling. Others have praised Toronto’s defence. I think Argos defensive coordinator Rich Stubler deserves a lot of credit – he seems to have found the secret sauce for containing Ottawa’s receiving corps. Ottawa’s talent should have still been enough, but it wasn’t.

And I’ll say this with no reservations – Henry Burris wasn’t good enough either. My impression is that he was a guy trying to prove the doubters wrong. Whether Burris was forcing balls into coverage, overthrowing or putting too much zip when a bit of touch was required, he had a bad night. Burris definitely wasn’t making good decisions, and its possible that his mechanics were off due to his finger. We’ll see.

The good news is that Hank is a leader and wore his performance in post-game interviews. I also recall that in 2014, “Bad Hank” didn’t usually appear two games in a row. I think his decision-making will be much better vs. Edmonton. The question is how much of his performance was due to this injury and whether that will be resolved before Saturday.

Ok, now let’s take a quick tour through the field to see how things are going and where they are headed.

Quarterback

Henry Burris (Photo: Scott Grant)

This remains Henry’s team, and like I said, history says that Bad Hank isn’t likely to appear two games in a row. Trevor Harris won’t be available till after the bye week at the earliest. Burris played about as well as Brock Jensen a week ago. The difference being, that was Hank at his worst. I believe that level of play is Brock Jensen’s normal. This team needs wins, it is already hovering barely over the danger zone for hosting a home playoff game. Burris has to step up and find a way to beat an Edmonton defence that is in disarray and then stomp Saskatchewan.

We can worry about Harris and the starting job when the time comes.

Running back

Nic Grigsby (Photo: Scott Grant)

Considering how deep into the big pile of RB resumes GM Marcel Desjardins has had to dig, the running game has been pretty good. I’ve liked Nic Grigsby’s play. Travon Van has a lot of fans and is set to return fairly soon, but I’d like to see the team stick with Grigsby. I much prefer his game. He’s built lower to the ground, hits the hole with far more determination and purpose, and can create a play where there doesn’t seem to be an opening. I was starting to come around on Van before he got injured, but I think Grigsby is better. Van is good enough as a depth back and I like him as a receiver. Van’s trajectory was good before the injury; if he can return to that form, he’ll improve the offence.

Receiver
It’s disconcerting that Stubler seemed able to throw a blanket over them so consistently in Week 6. You have to believe DCs around the league are figuring out the formula, as Toronto’s personnel aren’t so overpowering that their success against Ottawa can be attributed to talent alone. QB performance aside, against Toronto, our offensive performance in the 2nd half came down to the fact that Ottawa’s receivers could not get open.

There has been a lot of criticism of offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo’s playcalling as of late, but I suspect the runs, hitch passes and screens were all that was available. This was compounded by Burris’ limitations. The offence could not stretch out the field, the coverage was good and so the offence was simplified down to runs and short gimmick passes.

Ernest Jackson (Photo: Scott Grant)

Make no mistake though, Ottawa’s receivers are still the class of the league. I’m going to single out Ernest Jackson first. Whenever this team has asked him to deliver, he has done it. Short to mid-range passes when the team really needs a first down seem to be his specialty, and his commitment to blocking makes him a role model for every receiver in the league. Greg Ellingson has had a couple of softer games, but no need to sound the alarm bells yet. Brad Sinopoli continues to defy all logic in how a gangly Canadian SB can outrun and outfight so many defenders to both get receptions and big yards after he makes the catch.

Jake Harty started strong and earned the starting spot, but has not been sharp the past while and had an outright poor game vs. the Argos. If the ratio continues to allow it, it is time to bring Khalil Paden back onto the field.

I have no doubt that Chris Williams will be crushing the souls of opposing defenders and their fans again soon. He was scary-fast on the sole deep pass attempt he saw vs. the Argos.

Offensive line

From left: Jake Silas, Alex Mateas & Jon Gott (Photo: Scott Grant)

This group managed to give 6-7 seconds of great protection on some snaps vs. a Toronto blitz, and be a complete train wreck on other plays. J’Michael Deane needs to stop getting holding penalties or the coaching staff will have an easy decision to sit him once Nolan MacMillan returns (which should be fairly soon). I think SirVincent Rogers has recovered after a couple of outright bad games, so that’s a comfort. Jake Silas is settling into LT very well, and John Gott remains John Gott. Meanwhile, both Mateas and Lauzon-Seguin have been coming along nicely. I was concerned about Mateas after his first couple of starts but he is improving and is part of the reason why Deane really needs to step up his play. Hopefully the treatment Mateas was receiving on the sideline towards the end of the game Sunday isn’t due to anything serious.

Defensive line

Connor Williams (Photo: Scott Grant)

Just when the d-line seemed settled, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon had to go and get injured. He wasn’t exactly making us forget Justin Capicciotti, but he was proving an able replacement and coming into his own. Zack Evans has proven the team was right in letting Keith Shologan go. Connor Williams has been starting due to Moton Hopkins injury, but Williams has played well and it may be hard to sit him once Hopkins returns. They will be see lots of snaps and make a lot of plays regardless of where they sit on the depth chart.

Filling in due to Moton’s injury, UofO grad Ettore Lattanzio has been a very pleasant surprise in the DT rotation. He defies the odds as an undersized Canadian, but he has made some plays and has not been a liability when he’s been rotated in. Aston Whiteside is returning to form after a few weak starts and has shown world-class ability to disrupt throwing lanes and knock down pass attempts.

Linebacker

David Hinds (Photo: Scott Grant)

This was the one position largely unchanged since last season until Malik Jackson was released this week. This may be a salary cap move necessitated by bringing players off the six-game injury list early (Burris, for starters) or it may be because there are other options. David Hinds has been the starter at weakside LB, and keeping an American CFL vet in a back-up role has been a luxury. Burton De Koning in limited action has shown worthy of being bumped up and getting some snaps. Damaso Muñoz remains one of the underrated players in the league, though I’d like to see him make a few more plays from MLB. Antoine Pruneau has been a force, and his maturity is showing. He has expressed interest in pursuing something in the NFL next year. That is a stretch – his coverage skills aren’t great and there are 500 players like him coming out of US colleges and showing up at combines. Hopefully Ottawa will be able to keep him. It seems that when players fall short in an NFL dream they end up changing CFL teams rather than returning and re-signing. Time will tell.

Secondary

Jermaine Robinson (Photo: Scott Grant)

Something no one saw coming is the number of injuries and changes in DBlock. Jerrell Gavins, Forrest Hightower and Abdul Kanneh have all had to come out. Brandon Sermons, who started for the RedBlacks in the Grey Cup, first lost the starting job in training camp to Jonathan Rose, and now he’s off the team entirely. Meanwhile, Desjardins managed to sign former Montreal CB Mitchell White, who was released by the Als due to salary cap issues. This move by Desjardins could rank up there with his acquisition of Harris in the offseason. White arrived during an injury crunch and will provide the grown-up leadership the exuberant DBlock has lacked since Jovon Johnson left. He’s also an outstanding cover guy – his interception vs. the Argos is only part of the story of how well he played in his RedBlacks debut.

The injuries are troubling, however, and here’s hoping that Rose returns to the form that earned him the starting job out of camp. Meanwhile, Tristan Jackson is a good returner and I hope he devotes his energies there. I’ll leave it at that. Jermaine Robinson was forced to play corner vs. Toronto due to injuries, and he showed why he’s used in a “hammer” role rather than as a cover FS. So much for thoughts of him moving to DB. However, John Boyett came in – something I’ve wanted to see for several weeks now – and was exactly as advertised. He’s fast, reads well and arrives at the ball with attitude and purpose. We can expect JRob to soon have NFL options, so Boyett is a good player to have around.

In general, I haven’t been impressed with this group when it plays zone, though their man coverage remains exceptional.

Special teams
I won’t go too deeply into it but let’s say that we needed Chris Milo to return to form. He hadn’t shown anything since hitting a 55-yard FG vs. Calgary to send that game into overtime. Milo performed as required vs. Toronto which is good news for a team that has had trouble scoring touchdowns lately. Chris Williams took over returning duties vs. the Argos and was no more enthusiastic or effective than he was last season. I have a hard time blaming him, the team needs someone dedicated to the job and that’s been hard to find with Jamill Smith injured.

I’m long overdue to recognize long-snapper Kevin Malcolm. He’s exceptionally good and I don’t think he’s ever gotten the team in trouble, and that’s high praise for an underappreciated and difficult position.

Outlook

Aston Whiteside (Photo: Scott Grant)

Ottawa’s next game, against Edmonton, isn’t quite must-win for the standings, but it could come to define the Redblacks season. A loss will mean a four game winless streak and a lot of question marks about what this group is really made of. A win against Edmonton instantly reverses the slide. It will also be the foundation for a short winning streak heading into their bye week and then the second half of the season. The fact that another Edmonton loss will throw that team into utter disarray is just a bonus.

As always, see you in the southwest corner at TD Place. Follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

All photos courtesy of Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @cflphotoarchive.