Will the Toronto Line Hold?
One of the biggest questions for the Toronto Argonauts leading up to their season opener against the Calgary Stampeders, was how the offensive line would look. Though the unit hadn’t worked together before, this experienced group wasn’t thought to be an area of concern in the spring, but everything changed in training camp when left tackle Isiah Cage suffered a significant ankle injury and center Cody Speller was suddenly added to the suspended list for personal reasons.
Right tackle Jamal Campbell and right guard Dariusz Bladek weren’t impacted directly by these absences, but veteran left guard Philip Blake was suddenly facing the prospect of playing center, a position he hasn’t played regularly in years.
The Argonauts drafted University of Calgary guard Peter Nicastro in the first round of this year’s CFL Draft with the plan of making him a center, but there was an expectation that this would take some time. Nicastro certainly profiles like a center, and his film playing that position is excellent, but it’s also extremely limited since he predominantly lined up as a guard for the Dinos.
Following the departure of Speller during training camp, Nicastro began taking reps with the first unit. He struggled a bit early on with his shotgun snap, but otherwise seemed to be progressing nicely. Then, in the second half of camp, the coaches began rotating him between center and left guard with Philip Blake. They’d both take all their snaps with the first unit, but Blake would play a series at center with Nicastro at guard, then they’d switch.
The situation at left tackle was a bit more conventional. After Isiah Cage went down early in camp, Dejon Allen took most of the first team reps. Allen played left tackle his junior and senior year at the University of Hawaii after playing right guard as a freshman and sophomore. Questions about Allen began to surface when the Argonauts dealt Toronto icon Alden Darby to Winnipeg for left tackle Terry Poole. After Poole’s arrival, however, Allen continued to take snaps with the first team.
Leading up to kickoff this past Saturday, Poole was placed on the injured list cementing Allen as the starting left tackle, while Nicastro was listed as the starting left guard, with Blake getting the nod at center. And that’s how the game began. Then, to start their third drive, Blake was replaced at center by Nicastro, but it wasn’t Blake at left guard beside him, it was 2019 first overall CFL Draft pick Shane Richards. It would stay this way for the remaining 11 snaps of the first half and the first snap of the second half, at which point the everyone returned to their original positions. It was revealed following the game that Blake suffered a shoulder injury which led to him being replaced for those 12 plays.
So, how did the line play? Pretty well considering they had two rookies out there. Both had some rookie moments, but they didn’t look terribly out of place either. Philip Blake struggled at times too, but he’s not a center, and he was injured for half the game, so it’s also hard to blame him.
Grading the individual linemen on each play didn’t yield any huge surprises, but there were some interesting nuggets in there. As with PFF grades, no grading numbers are ever perfect. To further illustrate this, Peter Nicastro’s grade was adjusted on Tuesday after Coach Dinwiddie explained Nicastro’s assignment on Toronto’s jailbreak screen to open the second half. It appeared initially that Nicastro should have chipped the nose in front of him before releasing, but Coach actually wants the release to be immediate, so the grade was corrected.
Right guard Dariusz Bladek finished the game with the line’s highest overall grade, just beating out right tackle Jamal Campbell, but there’s more to Bladek’s story. While his pass blocking grade was significantly higher than everyone else’s, he had the unit’s worst run blocking grade. On the other side of the spectrum, left tackle Dejon Allen was the most proficient run blocker, but struggled the most in pass protection.
Teams can gameplan around a unit’s inability to either run block or pass block, but having two individual players on the line with opposing performance extremes isn’t ideal. Throughout the game, no matter the play called, there was a good chance there would be an issue somewhere. History would suggest there’s no reason for concern about either Bladek or Allen. In fact, going back to college, Bladek has actually graded best as a run block, and Allen as a pass blocker, so this should sort itself out.
Philip Blake and Peter Nicastro’s grades were consistent, but below average. That’s to be expected for Nicastro as a rookie in his first CFL game, but it might seem surprising in the case of Blake who is regarded as one of the best guards in the league, even if he was playing center. Upon examination, this also appears to a case where regression to the mean will prevail.
Almost all of Blake’s issues in the first half appeared to be communication based. There were clearly plays where he was expecting either Nicastro or Bladek to do something other than what they did, leaving him in an unexpected predicament. In the second half, Blake was essentially playing with one arm, and it’s noticeable on film. Instead of engaging, he often punched at players with his left, regardless of his position, and this just wasn’t effective. With more time to gel with his until and a healthy shoulder, there’s no reason to think Blake wont return to form.
Nicastro’s woes have a bright side to them as well. While his overall grade was the lowest on the line, his play at guard exclusively was significantly better than his play at center. Center is a more difficult position to play, he didn’t play there much in university, and he wasn’t expecting to play there much if at all against Calgary, so it’s no wonder he graded better at guard. With Philip Blake limited in practice this week, the extra reps will certainly help Nicastro at center, a position the Argos envision him playing for years to come.
Perhaps the most interesting grade belonged to Shane Richards who stepped in at left guard when Nicastro moved over to center for the injured Blake. He had two blatant misses, but otherwise looked fantastic. He finished tied with Campbell for the second highest overall grade, but the fact that he only played 12 snaps, only one of which was a running play, suggest more evidence is needed. It is, however, highly encouraging, especially considering he’s been used almost exclusively on the right, not only throughout his career, but in training camp.
It may not have been pretty from start to finish, but the offensive line got the job done against Calgary. Certainly, their run blocking needs to improve, and going forward, miscommunication can’t result in free runners, but the signs all point to these issues being temporary. At the end of the day, the CFL is a passing league, and even with the difficulties the Toronto line experienced, they only surrendered one sack and their quarterback is the current league leader in almost every statistical category. This week’s matchup against Winnipeg, featuring the best defensive line in the CFL, will shed light on how much can be taken from last week’s results, and serve as a test to see where the line currently stands after another week together and some game experience under their belts.