The Ottawa Redblacks had perhaps the most tumultuous off-season of any CFL team. After letting many of their offensive stars walk in free agency, the Redblacks will need their oft-overlooked defence to carry them even more this season.
The defending East Division champions lost many faces of the franchise, including their starting quarterback, running back, left tackle and two of their top three receiving threats. Not to mention Jaime Elizondo stepped down from his position as offensive coordinator in early April. It was an offence that was inconsistent but brilliant at times, most recently in their dominant victory over Hamilton in last year’s East Final.
What remained consistent throughout the 2018 season however was the takeaway-heavy defence that remains almost entirely intact. Can the Redblacks defence bring stability to a team currently shrouded in uncertainty?
One of 2018’s Most Improved Units
Defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe joined Ottawa before last season and brought with him an aggressive defensive approach. Through his strategy, and the versatile defenders acquired for his unique approach, the Redblacks improved significantly on the defensive side of the ball.
Ottawa had the third most takeaways in the league last year and gave up the third least points to opposing offences. They had five more interceptions and 13 more forced fumbles than the season prior. That resulted in a season-long turnover ratio of +9 and the reputation of a ‘big play’ defence. It’s clear why management wanted to keep this group together.
Old and New Faces
Although the off-season was a nightmare for the offence, the Redblacks retained 10 of their 12 defensive free agents.
The two players they lost to the open market were three-time East Division all-star defensive back Rico Murray (Hamilton) and defensive lineman A.C. Leonard (Saskatchewan). Murray tied for the league-lead in interceptions last season.
Filling in for Murray in the secondary will be Chris Randle, a veteran signed in the off-season from Winnipeg. He will join a strong unit that includes all-star Jonathan Rose, Sherrod Baltimore, Corey Tindal and safety Antoine Pruneau. The group led the CFL in pass breakups last season.
Leonard was selected as an East Division all-star but became less crucial to the Ottawa defence as 2018 went along. He was even a healthy scratch in the 2018 Grey Cup against the Stampeders. Leonard led the Redblacks in sacks but he was part of a defensive line group that was incredibly deep last season and remains so heading into the 2019 season.
A laundry list of names, including Michael Klassen, Avery Ellis, Danny Mason, George Uko, and Michael Wakefield among others, will be employed in various game situations in the four defensive line spots. Having a solid stable of talent on the d-line gives Thorpe flexibility on when to use different players rather than having big money contracts tied to a few linemen, which would restrict the different looks he can throw at opposing offences.
In terms of a pure pass rusher, as Leonard is, the Redblacks will have 2018-draftee Kene Onyeka eventually fill that role. The 22-year-old national out of Carleton University could be the rangy edge rusher that Ottawa needs if he can familiarize himself with the defence.
Anchoring the unit between the defensive line and secondary is a nucleus of young, promising linebackers. Avery Williams (24), Anthony Cioffi (24) and Kevin Brown (25) all had breakout campaigns in Ottawa last season and seem to be the unquestioned starters in 2019.
As mentioned, Thorpe values versatility. The speed of this group, especially the two outside backers, allows for them to impact the game immensely in both run and pass situations. The Redblacks experimented with different looks at linebacker last season but appear to be set with this trio moving forward.
The Last Word
It will likely take time for the offence to find its footing in the early stages of the new season. During then, the Redblacks defence can be relied upon heavily to pick up the slack.
While many already consider the Redblacks an afterthought in the East this season, their defensive prowess could keep them in the playoff picture and give them a chance at repeating as division champions.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images