Photo: Ben Grant
I don’t conduct a detailed grading of Toronto’s offensive linemen every game. I’d like to, but honestly it takes a long time and while I love covering the Argos, I also have a full-time job and my own team to coach. I decided to grade this week’s game because I was extremely impressed with the pass protection and somewhat dismayed by the rushing numbers, so I wanted to see the details.
An explanation of my grading system probably isn’t interesting enough for you to wade through, but you should know that each player is graded on each play, based on the execution of what I perceive to be the player’s assignment. Sometimes this assignment is obvious, but sometimes less so. With my own teams it’s easy because I know everyone’s assignment on every play, but in a case like this, I’m bound to make some mistakes.
For the sake of simplicity, it’s easiest to think of the grade as being out of 100 since almost all grades fall between 0-100, but that’s not technically how this scale works. In theory, a perfect score would be 126.4 and the worst possible score would be -36.4, but again, you never see numbers like these.
So, what can we glean from these grades? I didn’t grade Gregor MacKellar since he was only in for a couple plays, but he looked solid in his brief appearance. Considering I graded most of these guys in the 60s and 70s last season, their performance as a unit really stands out. Obviously Dariusz Bladek had an outstanding game. As JB noted in our postgame podcast, Bladek put on a pass blocking clinic and his run blocking wasn’t far behind. In fact, the entire line was pass protecting like there was no tomorrow with the exception of Isiah Cage. The same cannot be said for run blocking, though you needed no chart from me to tell you that. Andrew Harris is still among the best backs in the league, so his 2.6 yards-per-carry average was a red flag. Harris is a good enough back that he only needs his line run blocking at about a 65 to have a good day, but they weren’t close.
I don’t think these run blocking numbers are anything to be concerned about. Saskatchewan’s primary goal on defense was to stop Andrew Harris. That was pretty clear. The fact of the matter is this line isn’t good enough to overcome a good defense selling out on a single element like that. That’s okay though, you saw what that allowed them to do in the passing game. And when teams play them more honestly, they can certainly run well enough as we saw with Harris tallying 111 yards on the ground against Winnipeg last game.
I wouldn’t be concerned with Isiah Cage either. At least not yet. His numbers are poor, there’s no question, and his play was worse than what we’ve seen from Trevon Tate so far this season. McLeod Bethel-Thompson only took a handful of hits on Saturday, and most of them were the result of missed blocks from Cage. But this was to be expected from him, not having played a regular season game in almost three years. His technique was fine, it was his reaction time that was the issue. He was late to engage speed rushes around the outside and had trouble recovering on inside moves. He also got caught on two stunts. If this continues next game without any improvement, I would start getting concerned, but his history suggests he’ll get himself sorted out.
The most encouraging takeaway from these numbers is that this line can pass protect at a high level. In the CFL, a league centered almost entirely around passing, this matters a lot. Saskatchewan was short a few players on their defensive line, but they led the league in sacks coming in and the Argos didn’t allow a single one on Saturday. This is huge for Bethel-Thompson. When he has time in the pocket, his numbers are terrific. And as we saw on Saturday, even though he’s not known as a runner, with good protection he’ll take off when teams drop their linebackers deep in coverage.
This week’s rematch in Saskatchewan will be a great test for Toronto’s offensive line. If they can come out of that game with similar pass protection numbers and an improvement from Isiah Cage, they’ll be in a great position. Trevon Tate and Shane Richards have some more experience under their belts, rookie Gregor MacKellar already looks good and will continue to improve, Theren Churchill will likely be activated soon, and CFL East All-Star Peter Nicastro will be returning at some point from his knee injury. The line had been a point of concern heading into this season, but there's a chance a few weeks from now the Argos will have starting caliber linemen coming off the bench.