Friday, July 19, 2024

Redblacks underdogs again, and that’s fine with them

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“There’s a lot of doubt on the outside, people who don’t really believe in us. But that’s not what fuels us. What fuels us is our brother to our left and our right.”

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For the second week in a row, the Ottawa Redblacks are facing a team that played in last year’s Grey Cup.

And for the second week in a row, they are naturally being dismissed by the experts.

Middle linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox pointed that out when he addressed his teammates with an “inspirational” message at the conclusion of the last full practice before the Redblacks visit the Montreal Alouettes on Thursday (7:30 p.m.).

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“All we need is the guys in our room,” Santos-Knox said when asked for the generalized version of his speech. “There’s a lot of doubt on the outside, people who don’t really believe in us. But that’s not what fuels us. What fuels us is our brother to our left and our right.

“Last week, all the TSN panel picked against us and I think they did the same this week, but it doesn’t matter. Like I said, we’re just playing for one another.”

What Santos-Knox could have also used to emphasize his point about the non-believers is the fact that all six contributors on CFL.ca have picked the Alouettes to defeat the Redblacks, as has 90 per cent of the fans polled by the website.

And who can blame any of them?

The Blue Bombers and Alouettes combined for 25 regular-season victories last season.

The Redblacks entered 2024 with 14 wins in the last four years, the same number Winnipeg had in 2023.

Santos-Knox had three tackles in the 23-19 triumph over the Blue Bombers last Thursday, a game in which he suffered an injury that had him “limited” through much of this this week’s practices.

While confirming that Santos-Knox will be in the lineup versus the Alouettes, head coach Bob Dyce pointed out that the 29-year-old in his second season with the Redblacks provides more than just strong on-field play.

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“What probably doesn’t get talked about enough is Jovan,” said Dyce. “From Day 1 at camp, the leadership that he has exuded on this team has been phenomenal. And I don’t mean the rah-rah stuff that happens sometimes. I’m talking about being a true leader every day, whether it be by holding his teammates accountable, bringing the same energy every single day, being the same person.

“One of the toxic things we talk about that we think is really important is consistency, and Jovan, by showing how consistent he’s been, he’s performed at an extremely high level. I don’t know that I’ve seen him play football as well as he’s playing it right now, and day in and day out. You guys just saw he was the guy who addressed the team today and had a fantastic message for them, so it’s great that he’s going to be in the lineup and excited to see him play.”

The one change the Redblacks will make this week is at right tackle, where Zack Pelehos will start in place of Dontae Bull — a pair of former first-rounders who had a training camp battle for the job.

Bull, who started last week and was replaced by Pelehos, won’t be on the roster for the Montreal game, as Jacob Ruby steps in as the backup offensive lineman.

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“Dontae is going to be a great player, but this week we will match up going into this game,” said Dyce, confirming Bull’s omission from the roster is a coaching decision. “Jacob has played some great Redblack football, and so we decided that he would be on the roster this week.”

Aside from four penalties, Dyce was pleased with the overall play by the O-line against Winnipeg.

Along with 129 total rush yards, the Redblacks gave up just two early sacks before keeping quarterback Dru Brown clean the rest of the way.

“In watching the film, they were physical, they were moving people around. They were ID-ing fronts correctly. I always talk about both the lines setting the tempo, and I really felt they set the tempo. When you have a back like Rock (Ryquell Armstead) who’s physical as well, we want to want wear people out a little bit. And it starts with those guys.

“So, without a doubt, (left guard) Drew Desjarlais has done a great job leading those guys, along with obviously Coach (Pat) Perles. And (right guard) Dariusz (Bladek) has been a fantastic addition. (Left tackle) Dino (Boyd) is being Dino, who I felt played at an all-star level last year. What we’ve got to do is be consistent with it. We’ve got to make sure we’re doing that every single week for us to be successful.”

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Pelehos is looking forward to making his first start of the season and the opportunity to cement himself as the team’s full-time starting right tackle.

“It feels great,” he said. “Every day, every week, I’ve just been working on everything that I need to do. It’s anybody’s battle right now. So I’m just thankful that I got the opportunity and I just got to put it on the field.”

Among Pelehos’ tasks will be to contain Shawn Lemon, who has 102 career CFL sacks.

“I’ll definitely see Shawn Lemon over the course of the game,” said Pelehos. “I’m going to treat him just like anybody else and execute my assignments. Basically not treat him like anything special, but I know I gotta get my hands on him because he’s a relentless player and he’s going to keep working as long as you can.”

Meanwhile, a win at the home of the Grey Cup champs would go a long way in earning respect around the league.

The Redblacks would become news around the CFL, not just in the nation’s capital, where off-day stories about the team were on the front of the Ottawa Sun twice this week.

“While we focus on ourselves, we know how much this team means to the city of Ottawa and we like to do Ottawa proud,” said Dyce. “The fact people are recognizing these guys’ work is fantastic. We look at these things one day at a time and we want to continue to get better, and hopefully see more of that continue.”

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To beat Montreal, Dyce said: “We have to play our brand of football. We’ve got to play a physical game. We have to be consistent in what we do. And we have to play hard for four quarters. They’re a very good team, they’re 2-0. So we just have to play to our top level because at the end of the day, we feel if we play at our top level we can beat anybody.”

Santos-Knox called the visit to Montreal a measuring-stick game for the Redblacks.

“This is a big one,” he said. “Not only is it the champs it’s also an East opponent, which makes it a little bit more important. So, we’re going into this game like any other game, but at the same time, in the back of your mind, you know, hey, this one’s a four-point swing.”

dbrennan@postmedia.com

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