Milton: Ticats offensive line making strides

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With a work in progress, it makes a real difference whether you put the accent on the first word or the last.

Is it more work than progress, or vice-versa?

The interior of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ offensive line — three critical components to protecting the team’s import ratio, not to mention its franchise quarterback — has been working, and playing, together for less than three months but the progress has been visible even to the non-football eye.

To the football eye, that Canadian interior, flanked by large American tackles (currently Jeremy Lewis and Jake Olson) has developed cohesion and effectiveness much more quickly than the rest of the league expected.

Centre Mike Filer, in his second season as a starter, left guard Peter Dyakowski, in his first season after a year off with injury, and right guard Ryan Bomben, in his first season as a Ticat after five terms with the Alouettes, had never played together before this spring.

That means more than the layman knows. An offensive line is like a lawn that can only be grown with grass seed, because sod doesn’t generally work. The quick fix is usually no fix at all, at least in the long term, which a CFL season happens to be.

“You can ‘plug and play’ a lot of positions but that is a team within a team,” Cats offensive line coach Allen Rudolph says of his group. “It is a true unit that relies on each other and works together. The right tackle needs to feel and see exactly the same things that the right guard is seeing. It can’t just be the one best player at each position, it’s got to be the five that work together the best. I think we’re starting to develop that.”

When Dyakowski was forced to miss virtually the entire season, and veteran centre Marwan Hage was exhaled into the Ottawa expansion draft and quickly retired, Hamilton’s offensive line struggled through the early going in 2014, and even had to move International tackle Brian Simmons to guard.

After giving up 10 sacks in the 2014 opening game — they’ve given up only 10 in six games this year, a couple of which you could hang on the quarterback — the line was completely revamped within a week, eating up a precious American spot in the import ratio.

Last year, veteran Tim O’Neill started at centre and left guard, but this year is used only in certain packages, and plays right guard when the Cats deploy Bomben at tight end, from where he scored his first CFL touchdown Sunday.

When a starter one year is still as talented and becomes a role player the next, it usually means you’ve improved. This group has ramped up so quickly that Simmons, an excellent lineman, is having trouble cracking it.

“We’re really fortunate we’ve been able to keep the same guys in, and you’ve seen it gel and we’ve got more solid every game,” says Dyakowski. “The offensive line is unique. You have to have those five guys working together as a unit, so you’ll always see it take time for guys to jell. When you mix guys around because of injury and personnel injuries, it can be a little disruptive.”

O’Neill has been the glue the past two years, playing centre and both guard spots, not complaining when he’s demoted to backup and delivering strong performances when he does play.

Rudolph, whose job is to keep pushing that interior trio up its steep learning curve as quickly as he can, says he’s been impressed by what he’s seen through the season’s first third.

“I think those guys in the middle are playing well,” Rudolph says. “Getting Peter back, the addition of Ryan, and a year of growth for Mike. There were those things that come with having a rookie centre last year, now it’s coming a lot easier for him. And we’ve got talented tackles (Lewis, Olson, Simmons and injured Joel Figueroa).

“That’s a whole new crew interiorly together as a unit … they’re really gelled together well. Ryan came over from Montreal but it’s like he’s been here for years. But early on, that had to develop, that trust and friendship.

“And it’s really starting to come.”