Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mid-February Roster Analysis: Winnipeg Blue Bombers Offensive Line

Part 3 of 6...the most maligned group of "athletes" in Winnipeg, the Blue Bombers offensive line.

The Blue Bombers currently have 11 OL under contract, 7 non-imports and 4 imports.  

Here's what we ended last season with:

LT January

C SORENSEN (signed with Edmonton)
RT Jarvis Jones

First, we'll take a look at each guy individually, then the group.

The Veterans-

Steve Morley (6'7 325 33) entering his 6th season as a Blue Bomber, 9th as a CFLer, the first overall pick of the 2003 CFL Draft.  

Morley started at tackle in his first season as a Bomber (2009), but has made his living at right guard since 2010.  Morley was a decent tackle and it took him a long time to become a good CFL guard, something he's still struggling to be over 18 games.  In my opinion, his best stretch as a guard for the Blue Bombers was the 2nd half of the 2011 season, when Chris Garrett took over at RB and the Blue Bombers committed to actually having some remnant of a power run game.

The more aggressive Morley plays, the better he plays.  He has the ability to be a very good CFL offensive lineman, and has shown that ability in spurts.  Morley tends to play more aggressive (better!), including in pass blocking, when the Blue Bombers establish the run. Why?  Couple reasons.  First, he's physically engaged in the game. Second, teams aren't going to pin their ears back and blitz like crazy because they are playing against a team that just might run the ball. This is a typical trait of nearly all offensive linemen, not just a Morley thing.  If you don't know this by now, you will hear me say it a lot, the simplest way to improve your OL play as a team is to commit to establishing the run.  This doesn't mean you run the ball 50 times a game, it means you run a more balanced offence, ie 60/40 pass run, and don't pull a Crowton and abandon the run if your first two carries are not successful.

Morley struggles in pass blocking.  He plays guard like a tackle (or a guard who isn't that great), which is to say that he almost always retreats off the snap and pops high out of his stance, giving up leverage.  A tackle has more leeway to give up ground, because the edge rusher is taking a long route as long as the tackle doesn't get beat inside.  A tackle can lose 5 yards and still form a nice pocket, and this is in fact basic pass protection technique, for a tackle to keep the rusher in front of him and widen the rush lane (route to the QB) rather than quickly engaging him at the line of scrimmage.  Guards and centres need to get a lick on rushers coming through their gaps ASAP.  They don't necessarily want to fully engage a rusher, because then the rusher can make a quick move and slip into the pocket clean, but they want to get a body on them and start the battle.  If you are giving up ground before you even engage the rusher, and then continue to get pushed into the pocket...bad, really bad for your QB and passing game.  

The play at 3:18 of this Bomber-Argo video perfectly illustrates bad Morley.  The line of scrimmage is the Argo 53.  Morley is playing right guard.  Pause at 3:20.  Notice the left guard (Greaves) and the centre (Sorensen).  They stay low, pretty even with the LOS before making initial contact with any rusher and their hips remain facing the Argo endzone.  Morley is immediately scrambling backwards, high out of his stance with his hips turned towards the sideline (big no-no) and chases an Argo end who is already being blocked by Jarvis Jones, giving up his inside gap (the biggest no-no).  The Argos are only rushing 3, which probably saved Max Hall`s life, if a guy like Shane Horton is coming on a delayed blitz and Morley turns to chase a defensive end back 10 yards, KA-BOOM!  Greaves and Sorensen are perfect off the snap, but a little nonchalant in supporting January against the 3 man rush (while Morley is too eager to support Jones), Greaves finishes the play poorly with a half-assed hip check, forcing Hall to flee the pocket (although he had a lot of steamboats).

There`s one ongoing question with Morley...can he play a full season at his full potential?  If he can, we should have no major issues at right guard, but he hasn't done it yet at 33.

Chris Greaves (6'5 300 27) is heading into his 5th season as a Blue Bomber and CFLer, his 3rd as a starting guard.

Greaves is one of the most athletic offensive linemen in the league. He's the anti-Kabongo.  Greaves is one of the few linemen in the league who is as quick as the guys he is blocking.  He is not the strongest relative to many of the interior DL he faces as a guard, so he needs to battle and use his agility to be successful.  He's not going to drive a DL 5 yards downfield, he needs to get a good fire out of his stance and turn the DL to open up a gap in zone run blocking and hopefully move up to the next level (LB/HB) with a little help from his friends at tackle or centre.  Greaves is very quick out of his stance in run blocking, especially when he puts a hand down into a 3 point stance, athlete.  

Greaves is a steady pass blocker.  He's patient, he holds his inside gap first and foremost, he keeps his butt and hips low facing the endzone and battles.  As a guard, he engages rushers at the line of scrimmage as he should to help form a pocket.  Greaves is very good at getting his hands inside and fending off initial pass rushing moves.  As an interior OL, if you win or tie the initial 3 steps off the snap, you've won the play (just hope Morley isn't chasing wildly after Buzz and Boomer on the other side of the formation, leaving his gap wide-open).  Greaves will be the starting left guard, no doubt about it.

Glenn January (6'6 300 31) is heading into his 6th season as a Blue Bomber and 8th season in the CFL.  

Take everything I said about Greaves and transfer it to the tackle position, that's January.  As a tackle, his main job in pass protection to widen the pass rush lane to the QB for the edge rushers while making sure he doesn't lose his inside gap to that edge rusher or a blitz. January does his job.  He struggled with consistency in his early years with the Bombers, but has developed into a very steady import OT and clearly one of the team leaders.  He's in his prime and he's one of the best in the league, probably would get Most Outstanding Lineman hype if he played on a better team.  January will be starting at left tackle.

Jarvis Jones (6'7 300 26) is heading into his 2nd season as Blue Bomber and CFLer.  Joined the Bombers on September 17, and started at left tackle in the game 3 days later.  

Jones was impressive.  He immediately got under Marcus Howard's skin in that first game with his tenacity, ability to keep Howard from getting around the edge (for the first 3 quarters anyways) and willingness to play through the whistle.  Ended his first drive as a Blue Bomber by driving Howard 5 yards deep into the endzone on a Bomber 1 yard TD.  Jones showed very good raw ability to take on edge rushers, but struggled at times with inside moves, spins in particular and blitzes through his inside gap.  I expect Jones to have the inside track on being the starting right tackle for the Blue Bombers in 2014, barring any ratio issues.   

Shannon Boatman...please don't bring him to training camp.

Chris Kowalczuk (6'5 305 29) the only Bomber OL under contract currently who has snapped a football in a CFL game.  

Unfortunately, that really means nothing.  He started the 2012 season as the Bombers centre and immediately lost the job after one game to Justin Sorensen, who won't be joining John Bonk in the Blue Bomber hall of fame to put it mildly.  Kowalczuk is entering his 5th season as a Bomber and has only played a handful of games.  He hasn't seen enough meaningful action to say anything definitive.  I thought he played ok as a guard in his start against Edmonton in 2013, after the first drive I was no longer concerned for Max Hall's life, but otherwise he barely saw the field.  Hard to know where he stands against the other spare part OL the Bombers have, that he's still here after 5 years and few contributions on gamedays is odd.

The Prospects-

Paul Swiston (6'8 325 25) is heading into his 4th season as a Blue Bomber and CFLer.  

Swiston has a lot of similarities with Morley.  He's a natural tackle. He's being moved inside to play guard.  It's an awkward transition. Based on what we've seen of Swiston as a guard, which isn't a whole lot in terms of game action, he's good in pass protection, he engages at the line of scrimmage, you don't have to worry about your quarterback getting killed when Swiston is playing, which is always a good starting point.  

He needs to work on getting his hands inside to control rushers and battle against inside pass rushing moves.  Based on his couple of 2013 starts, he tends to lean to his outside gap too quickly, leaving him prone to a quick inside move by the guy he's blocking or a delayed LB blitz. It's a classic lock on one block instead of focusing on blocking your gaps from the inside out, much like Jarvis Jones at the tackle spot.  You never want to give that direct route into the pocket.  

As a guard in a tackles body, he's always going to struggle to get leverage inside, especially in run blocking.  On the bright side, Swiston is 25 and has 3 seasons in.  He is still raw, and his development is stalling due to injury, problems which date back to his CIS career, causing his drop into the 4th round. Will he take the next step and become a viable starting CFL OL?

Patrick Neufeld (6'5 295 25) is entering his first season as a Blue Bomber, 4th in the CFL as the Blue Bombers top OL acquisition heading into 2014.  

Neufeld only started one game in his aborted return from a broken fibula suffered in the 2013 preseason.  That game was the Banjo Bowl. Neufeld started at right guard.  Zach Anderson absolutely mauled him all afternoon, just beat him up physically.  There's not much technique to look at, he spent half the game on his can, with Anderson getting free runs at Durant.  Neufeld didn't play again in 2013, apparently reinjured his leg and was traded to the Blue Bombers before the end of the season.  

In 2012, he started 13 games for the Roughriders at right tackle.  The full game I watched of Neufeld at tackle was the 2012 West Semi-Final against Calgary.  Neufeld is matched up against Charleston Hughes and Cordarro Law, two of the better pass rushers in recent CFL history. Neufeld held his own in that game, but looked more like a speedbump than a guy you'd want starting 18 games at tackle.  Hughes and Law did get a reasonable amount of pressure but they never got a free run at Durant.  

It became pretty clear that Hughes was taking a wide first move and coming quickly inside on Neufeld to break into the pocket, Neufeld didn't really have an answer for that.  Sometimes he was able to get a shot on Hughes as he drove through into the pocket, but at that point Neufeld's hips were already turned to the sideline and he had no hope of blocking Hughes.   This forced Durant to leave the pocket consistently.  In that situation, when a guy literally has no hope of contesting a rusher with such strong moves, you just want to make the rusher take the longest path to the quarterback possible.  Hold your inside gap and kickstep to widen the rush lane as much as possible without letting the rush end make a quick and easy inside move.  

The Riders supported Neufeld quite often with a tight end or running back joining him on his outside gap.  Something I really didn't like from him in that game was that he was getting locked on the outside rusher rather than minding his inside gap first, this was even happening when he had blocking support from a tight end/receiver or running back on his outside gap.  Knowing that he had support, if anything Neufeld should have cheated inside.  Calgary did have some success blitzing LB's through Neufeld's inside gap, along with Neufeld's chasing Hughes making his rips and spins to the inside more effective.  

The Riders offence (they did score 30 points) started going when they began dropping off screen passes behind the rush and letting Sheets go.  They only ran a handful of designed running plays, and other times Durant was just running for his life.

Neufeld is a natural tackle and has not shown to be even passable as a guard...yet.  That leads to two big questions; first, will Neufeld show well enough to beat Jarvis Jones out for the starting right tackle spot?  Second, if he doesn't win the right tackle spot, can he be a useful player for the Blue Bombers at another position (maybe a conversion to centre?)?

Also, is his fibula back in one piece?

Tyson Pencer (6'7 300 25) is heading into his 3rd season as a Blue Bomber and CFLer, the 3rd overall pick in the 2012 CFL Draft.  

In watching his first couple starts, Pencer actively engages pass rushers, and he was getting a good surge off the line in run blocking, even out of a 2 point stance.  Like most of the younger OL I've talked about in this post, he shows a tendency to lock on blocking one rusher and not always minding the concept of making a pocket by protecting inside to outside, giving up only the widest and most indirect rush lanes. This plays right into a lot of the stunts and blitzes that defense's run, and why patience is a virtue for offensive linemen.   Pencer actually played most of his first start at right tackle after Glenn January left due to injury, and he looked quite comfortable.  He did get beat off the edge a few times due to being overaggressive and attempting to engage the defensive end too early off the snap inside of getting a couple kick steps in and widening the rush lane a bit first to match the speed of the defensive end.   That is somewhat understandable given that he had been practicing as a guard and preparing to start that game as a guard.

Pencer certainly has the aggression and the athleticism necessary to be a CFL OL.  Will he develop the physical and mental technique? Getting to see Pencer play last season was encouraging, because he is not that far away from being a valuable player, but he does need experience and he needs to take advantage of the opportunity.   It is time for Walters and the coaching staff to decide which position they want Pencer to play.  In my opinion he could be either a tackle or guard, but moving him back and forth will only hurt his development.

Terriss Paliwoda (6'4 300 30) has spent time on the practice roster with the Eskimos (2007), Argos (2013) and Bombers (2013), he is a non-import.  Have no insight into his game.  I'm hoping he can play centre....

Dan Knapp (6'5 305 25) started a game at right tackle in his first week as a Blue Bomber, just like Jarvis Jones, 3 days after he joined the Blue Bombers.  As an import he's in tough to beat out January or Jones for a job.  I'll spot him Boatman.

The Big Picture-

3 out of 5 positions are up for grabs: centre, right guard and right tackle.

Here is how the OL stacks up as of February 20 (NON-IMPORT):

LT- January
RT- Jones, NEUFELD, Knapp

I've omitted Boatman because bringing him up for training camp would defy logic.  Also omitted Paliwoda because I have no idea where the Bombers see him fitting in.  He played guard at the University of Alberta.  Is he a candidate to play centre?

Based on our current depth chart, we need a centre for sure.  Will someone currently on the roster convert to centre?  Morley? Neufeld?  Will the Bombers draft a centre, and will that centre make the immediate jump into the starting lineup?  

Players have converted later in their career from other positions to centre.  Two notable recent examples for the Bombers are Moe Elewonibi and Obby Khan, who both started their CFL careers as tackles.  Is it safe to assume that someone can do this easily?  No. 

For all we know, the process has already begun and whoever they chose to be the convert has been working on snapping the ball etc. This is a very important issue for this team which must be addressed before training camp.  The centre handles the ball on every offensive play.  That guy doesn't get the ball clean to the QB on 10% of the plays, that's 6-7 fumbles in a game.  The centre is absolutely crucial.

The battle for right guard should be one to watch.  The Bombers have been trying to replace Steve Morley since mid-2012, and no one has stepped up to take the job.  Will Pencer or Swiston take it this season?

The battle at right tackle will be more about the ratio than anything else. If they both had the same passport, there would be no contest between Neufeld and Jarvis Jones, Jones wins easily.  But, if the Blue Bombers need to start 4 non-imports on the offensive line to satisfy the ratio, it won't be a contest either, Neufeld wins by default.

In part 4 we will shift to the defensive side of the ball and look at the defensive line.

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