Blue Bomber Report Record: 7–11–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

O-line finally gets to hog spotlight

Distinctive by their glaring obscurity

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Like referees and actors, the only time you tend to notice offensive linemen doing their job is when they are doing it badly.

And so if it's seemed lately like the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive line has been almost invisible, that's compelling testimony to just how well they've been playing.

For all the wringing of hands that went on in these parts at the start of this season about the loss of free agent all-star guard Brendon LaBatte to the Saskatchewan Roughriders last winter, the fact is the Bombers offensive line has been doing very nicely lately without LaBatte. Or Dominic Picard. Or any of the other free agent offensive linemen Bombers GM Joe Mack was ripped for not signing last off-season.

Indeed, talk to coaches around the CFL these days and what you will hear is that the blue-collar line the Bombers have patched together over the course of the season -- with tackles Glenn January and Shannon Boatman, guards Chris Greaves and Steve Morley and centre Justin Sorensen -- is right now playing as well as any set of hogs anywhere in Canada.

And while perhaps no one else has noticed, the men wearing Blue and Gold in the trenches certainly have. And so with their performance last Friday in a win over the Argonauts in Toronto -- a game that saw the Bombers rush for an eye-popping 260 yards and tailback Chad Simpson go over 1,000 yards for the season -- it was hard to blame them if they felt they were long overdue for some acknowledgment.

"That's not bad for what some people have called the worst offensive line in the league," January said in a jubilant Bombers locker-room. "I think we've been underappreciated all year. Whenever you have a rusher doing 1,000 yards, that's something special. And I don't know what he's averaging now, but he was averaging over six yards a carry. So that just goes to show we did it on not very many attempts.

"We are a group that doesn't go out there and seek the limelight. We're a hard-working group, we're a lunch pail crew and we just go to work. We're happy for Chad and it's obviously a great accomplishment for us."

Simpson missed the first three games of the season with a foot injury that has continued to dog him all year and on Friday reached the 1,000-yard milestone on just his 168th carry. That's less carries than any of the three other CFL rushers who have gone over 1,000 yards this season -- B.C.'s Andrew Harris, Saskatchewan's Kory Sheets and Calgary's Jon Cornish.

But while that's something to hang your hat on as an offensive lineman, Morley says he's not letting it go to his head. "I don't worry what people say or write about us anyway. I take the workman mentality. I bring my lunchpail to work every day, keep my head down and hope for the best.

"But having said that, I've been saying all season we should run the ball more. And (Friday night) we did that -- and look what happened."

But perhaps even more impressive than the ground they have been plowing for the rushing game lately has been their performance in the other job any offensive line is entrusted with -- protecting the quarterback.

After struggling mightily with that task early in the season -- the Bombers gave up 14 sacks in the first four games -- the offensive line has yielded just five sacks in the last four games and the sight of an opponent in the Bombers' backfield has increasingly become a rarity.

While Winnipeg is still second-last in the league in sacks allowed with 40, almost half of those (19) came in the first six games as Greaves was still getting comfortable as LaBatte's replacement; the Bombers were still trying to find a replacement at tackle for Andre Douglas, who went down in training camp and never did come back; and the team was auditioning Chris Kowalczuk at centre.

Since then, Bombers coaches say Greaves is now playing like a veteran, Sorenson has replaced Kowalczuk and staked a legitimate claim as the Bombers centre for years to come and Boatman is playing like a man with a second chance at life, which he sort of is after agreeing to come out of retirement this summer to take one last shot at football.

"I'd been saying all year, 'We're doing all right, but we're not as good as we're going to be.' And some of you guys called that a vanilla answer," said January. "Well, it was the honest truth. I honestly felt we had this in us, that we were going to continue to grow. This was a young group and we had a lot of pressure on us. With the offensive game plan we run, we had to do more one-on-one blocking than any other team in the league.

"We got knocked around by the media, but the numbers don't lie. It's very satisfying, but the hay is not in the barn yet. We've got two more games yet to go out there and prove who we are and what we are. All you have in life is your name and what you're known for. And we've got our name right now and I think what we're known for hadn't really been written in the books yet."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2012 C3

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