Bomber woes include inexperienced offensive line trying to get up to speed
WINNIPEG - When you've got the youngest team in the CFL some teething pain is expected.
Unfortunately for Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce and the team's other pivots, they've been feeling that pain as an inexperienced offensive line looks to find its feet.
There were signs that may be turning around Wednesday night, but veteran left tackle Glenn January says a lot more work needs to be done.
"Any time there's progress you have to be happy," he said Thursday, returning from a 25-22 loss in Toronto that left the Bombers with a record of 0-4.
"We're not where we want to be but we're continuing to grow as a unit and as a team."
It was particularly gratifying because the Toronto defence is strong, he said. Quarterback Alex Brink can testify to that after completing only nine of 34 passes.
"A Chris Jones defence is never something that's easy to dissect," said January of the Argos' defensive co-ordinator.
"That's a huge positive for us to take away. There's some technique stuff we still have to clean up but I think schematically we had our best game yet."
Coach Paul LaPolice also saw progress.
"I think the o-line is starting to gel better and play more consistent but there's a lot of work to do," he said.
If things have started to turn around for the unit, it certainly isn't coming too soon as the Bombers play their first home game of the season next Thursday, against Edmonton.
It doesn't help that Pierce is out of action for about a month with torn ligaments and a muscle in his left foot, after getting sacked last week in Edmonton. The Eskimos had little trouble running through or around the line that night, clobbering Winnipeg 42-10.
The Bombers made a lot of changes intentionally this season but the gaps on the offensive line weren't entirely of their choosing.
They had two big holes to fill with the unexpected departure of all-star guard Brendon LaBatte for his native Saskatchewan and the somewhat less-surprising loss of centre Obby Khan to retirement.
Injuries messed up a plan to have at least two veterans anchoring the line. Right tackle Andre Douglas remains on the injured list.
That has left January and right guard Steve Morley surrounded by players with little or no CFL experience. January with six years and Morley with seven have more than the rest combined.
"I have a lot more starts than they do," says January, estimating the youngsters at no more than 15.
"I think Steve and I have about 150 starts combined between the two of us."
At centre they've got either Justin Sorensen, who spent two years with B.C. before joining the Bombers practice squad last season, or Chris Kowalczuk, who went from Winnipeg's practice roster in 2010 to the injured list in 2011.
At left guard is Chris Greaves, who was drafted as a defensive lineman in 2010 but moved over to the o-line. He saw limited action until the final three games of 2011 when he moved to starter. At right tackle is import Jordan Taorima or 2011 draft pick Paul Swiston, both in their CFL rookie year.
Winnipeg's top draft pick this year was also an offensive lineman, Tyson Pencer, but Swiston was closer to game ready and the decision was made easier when Pencer joined the long list of the wounded.
Knitting it all together takes time.
"We just need to stay calm right now and continue to work hard," says January. "We've got all the pieces in place."
Easier said than done sometimes. It was the veteran January who got into a little dustup with Edmonton's Marcus Howard as the Bombers suffered that humbling to the Eskimos.
Despite all their problems, the Bombers have strong performers — Chris Matthews, for example, the rookie receiver leading the league with 366 yards, and Bryant Turner, the CFL's current sack leader with five.
On Wednesday the o-line won praise from rookie running back Chad Simpson, who came off the injured list to put 91 yards on the board rushing and another 31 receiving.
"My grandma could have ran through those holes," he said. "The o-line, people been coming at their heads and they stepped up."