September 22, 2017

Hogan: O, what a line

Toronto Argonauts offensive line coach Jonathan Himebauch during the game at against the Edmonton Eskimos at BMO Field in Toronto, ON, Saturday, September 16, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

They looked the same. The players were wearing Double Blue uniforms, the personnel of the group was essentially status quo, but against the Edmonton Eskimos last Saturday something looked different.

Maybe it was just the end result.

The Argos defeated Edmonton 34-26 in a game where they looked as crisp offensively as they had all season. They ran the ball exceptionally well, kept Ricky Ray fairly clean, and did a nice job keeping a very good front four at bay.

A big reason for the success was the play of the offensive line.

“Structurally we played better than we had,” head coach Marc Trestman told “I thought we had great intensity, we knew we’d have to have that. We’d have to bring an edge to play a front as good, as quick, as dominant as they can be. I think they did it from the start and they finished the game that way.”

It’s in all likelihood too easy to make the connection, but many people have been drawing a line to the o-line’s success to the return of offensive line coach Jonathan Himebauch, who rejoined the team last week.

He was happy but realized it was far from being a perfect game.

“The end goal is when you look up at the scoreboard and you see that you won the game,” said Himebauch. “There’s a lot of correctable things that we have (after) reviewing the film.”

It helps when you have a number of veterans in the group, which the Argos have. Take J’Micheal Deane for example. He whiffed on an attempted cut block early in the game, but was able to put it aside quickly and made several key contributions, including a kick-out block that sprung James Wilder Jr.’s 76-yard touchdown run.

The seven-year CFL veteran knows that a missed block to a lineman is like a dropped pass by a receiver. You have to learn from the mistake, but you have to forget about the previous play immediately.

“It’s gone,” said the right guard. “You’ve got to get rid of that play. That play is gone, it’s the next play. You made a mistake on that one, you’ve got to do better on the next one.”

The memory of that play was long gone by the second quarter when Wilder Jr. exploded for the long TD run, one of a handful of double-digit rushes on the day.

“There is nothing better,” said a suddenly beaming Deane, “than seeing the back of your running back as he’s blowing downfield and it’s just open. You give the fist pump and say I’m not going to be able to catch up with you, but go!”

All five linemen played well, perhaps the result of knowing the game plan was to try and establish the running attack. For an o-lineman that’s the football equivalent of a triple-scoop sundae with whipped cream and sprinkles.

If you’re not very familiar with offensive line play, think of the basic difference between blocking on a running play and pass blocking. When linemen pass block, they’re essentially stepping backward, trying to form a pocket around the quarterback and ‘catching’ the defensive player who is attempting to sack him.

When there’s a run, the offensive lineman blasts out of his three-point stance and tries to impose his physicality on the defender.

In non-football speak, it’s a lot more fun to be the hammer than the nail.

“Obviously (the run-heavy game plan) excites you,” said second-year centre Sean McEwen. ‘It takes the gas out of their tank and when you can kind of impose your will a little bit, both with being physical, but also just with the scheme and the success we were able to have. Because someone else is doing their job, it makes your job a little easier too.”

McEwen has quickly gained the reputation of being a highly intelligent player. It’s probably a good thing he has a high football I.Q., because Himebauch is his third positional coach in his first year-and-a-half as a pro.

“I look at it as being a positive,” said the Calgary native. “I’m able to get a lot of different perspectives on the game. I’m able to get knowledge from different places and put it all together and make my best version of what I can do out there.”

Himebauch was on the Argos staff when they drafted McEwen third overall in 2015, but left before he had the chance to coach him.

“When we drafted him, we just saw great potential,” said the coach. “Very cerebral, asks all the ‘what if’ questions, and you love to see that in a player, that he has enough foresight to think ‘this is what the norm is, but what are the things that can happen?’ and you always want that in a centre.”

Preparation is the key, and Deane says that was a huge reason for their success on Saturday.

“I feel like we just dominated the line of scrimmage” said the Newtonbrook Secondary School product. “Edmonton’s a real good line. We just had everything down pat so when we got there on the field everything was just about execution and I think we executed very well and we dominated up front.”

This wasn’t the first time the offensive line showed it could play at that level, but it was likely their best game in terms of playing well over 60 minutes.

The challenge now is to repeat that success.