Craig Dickenson issues challenge to Riders’ offensive line: ‘We’ve gotta play better up front’

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Saskatchewan Roughriders’ head coach Craig Dickenson wants to see improvement from his offensive line after a difficult outing against the Edmonton Elks in Week 10.

“There’s no doubt about it, we’ve gotta play better up front. I think it’s a shared responsibility between everybody on offence to try to get our quarterback a little more protection,” Dickenson told The Sportscage.

“Our o-line and I think our coaching staff, especially [offensive line coach Stephen] Sorrells, is disappointed that we haven’t played better but he’s one of the better coaches that I’ve been around. He works his tail off and I know he’s gonna put in the time to try to get them the individual work and the technique work they need to play better. I hope by the end of the year the offensive line is one of our strengths.”

The Riders allowed three sacks in their 34-23 victory over Edmonton as Cody Fajardo faced near-constant pressure from opposing defenders. His production was clearly affected by the oncoming rush as he completed 11-of-20 pass attempts for a season-low 130 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.

Offensive tackle Na’Ty Rodgers was released on Tuesday after taking two holding penalties and one objectionable conduct penalty against the Elks. Dickenson acknowledged that there’s little else the team can do at this stage of the season to fix the offensive line but remains hopeful that the unit can continue to gel over the latter half of the campaign.

“The only way you get better is to just keep working and hopefully you have some continuity with the group, you can keep the same five working together. And then you just keep working. There’s a lot that goes into it but the reality is at the end of the day, the linemen have to win their individual matchups and they’ve gotta be able to play as a group,” said Dickenson.

Saskatchewan has given up a league-worst 32 sacks on the season. Despite the challenges of his team’s offensive line, the veteran bench boss would also like to see Fajardo exercise more patience in the pocket, suggesting that he sometimes resorts to scrambling too soon.

“He’s gotta work on staying in the pocket, stepping up, moving a little left, moving a little right, and still keeping his eyes downfield and I know [offensive coordinator Jason] Maas is working like crazy with him to try to get him to do that,” said Dickenson.

“One guy’s getting beat on this play and another guy’s getting beat on another play, so it’s not like the entire defensive line’s in the backfield. But [Fajardo] will see colour and then he’ll spill to one side or the other and sometimes he runs into a guy that we’ve been blocking fairly well.”

Though there will be a change at right tackle following the release of Rodgers, the personnel has remained relatively consistent along the offensive line with the exception of Dan Clark suffering a broken fibula. He was replaced by Logan Bandy in Week 3 and Dickenson likes what he’s seen thus far from the former fifth-round pick.

“He’s playing well. He didn’t have actually his best game against Edmonton — he was a little bit confused a couple of times at some of his protection calls — but he’s done a great job all things being considered,” said Dickenson.

“This is essentially his rookie year and he’s been able to step in at probably the toughest position on the o-line — at least for the mental side of it — at centre and fill in very well for Dan Clark and really I felt like our offensive line has not missed a beat. Are they playing as well as we want? No. But Logan Bandy is doing a really good job and he’s still really young. We feel like his best football is still ahead of him.”

The Riders were outgained by over 100 yards in Edmonton with quarterback Taylor Cornelius rushing seven times for 86 yards and two touchdowns in a losing effort. While he wants his team to play better, Dickenson was pleased to see them win a game despite not playing their best football.

“We want to play better but I do think finding a way to win even when you don’t play your best or you’re not maybe on your A game is a good sign, but eventually we gotta start executing and playing better across the board and I think we will. We’re starting to get healthier now and it feels like we’re starting to get the same group back that we had at the beginning of the season,” said Dickenson.

“It’s nice to win ugly once in a while as well where you don’t maybe play your best football but you find ways to make a play here, make a play there and win. I felt like it was our best game in terms of situational football. We scored when we needed to and we made adjustments when we had to and played better in the second half.”

The Riders (5-4) are scheduled to play back-to-back games against the B.C. Lions (7-1) starting with a contest on Friday, Aug. 19 at 10:00 p.m. EDT at Mosaic Stadium.