Saskatchewan’s remade offensive line has given Roughriders fans new hope but it isn’t yet showing signs of being built for playoff football.
Running backs Jamal Morrow and Frankie Hickson combined for just 26 yards along the ground in the team’s 45-27 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last week. With the road to this year’s Grey Cup likely going through IG Field again this year, that type of rushing performance won’t cut the mustard for Saskatchewan come November.
The offensive line of Peter Godber, Logan Ferland, Evan Johnson, Eric Lofton, and Brandon Council never opened the type of lanes needed for the rushing attack to have any impact on Winnipeg’s defence.
Richie Hall, the Blue Bombers’ defensive coordinator, was able to focus his efforts on thwarting Kelly Jeffrey’s new passing game by doubling down on a pass rush that was still effective even without the injured Jackson Jeffcoat. His unit dropped extra defensive backs into coverage to make life a bit more challenging for Trevor Harris’ new pass-catchers.
The Riders’ offence still looked good. Harris threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions despite Derel Walker being absent due to injury. The offence certainly wasn’t to blame for the loss as a big play on special teams, some suspect tackling, and late-game regression is what ultimately sunk their boat.
But the battle in the trenches is still a work-in-progress for this newly-retooled offensive line. Last year’s much-maligned unit, most of which was let go during the off-season, gave up just four sacks in their opening two games.
This new group, which features only two first-string returnees in Ferland and Johnson, has already surrendered six. This year’s offensive line also has the luxury of a quick-release quarterback in Trevor Harris, something they didn’t have a year ago with the happy-footed play of Cody Fajardo.
Head coach Craig Dickenson acknowledged that his group needs to figure out how to achieve better balance on offence.
“If you’re not running the ball, they know you’re going to pass (and) can start heating up or they can play a lot of zone coverage and can basically break on the football, so I want to be a run-first team,” Dickenson said.
“We were effective on offence and I’ve got to give Kelly (Jeffrey) and the offence credit for finding ways to move the ball. But ideally, I think you’re going to win more games if you can run it well and then mix in the pass.”
As they were a year ago, the Roughriders appear committed to using Americans at both offensive tackle positions. With former NFL blocker Jerald Hawkins and seven-year CFL veteran Colin Kelly returning from the suspended list, it’s possible that one or both will be in the starting lineup in Week 3.
Early returns suggest the Riders should compete in the West Division this year, especially in light of the Edmonton Elks’ early offensive struggles.
But to be considered a true Grey Cup contender, Saskatchewan’s offensive line group is still going to have to get a whole lot better.