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Hot Read: O-Line Shuts Up Sapp, Shuts Down Defense

"Maybe the best part of 'smash mouth' football", W. Keith Roerdink writes, "is that it's hard for the guys getting smashed in the mouth to do much talking." That was certainly true last Sunday, as the Packers offensive line attempted the impossible: Shut Warren Sapp's mouth. How Chad Clifton (pictured) and the offensive line succeeded is the focus of this week's <I>Hot Read</I>.

Maybe the best part of 'smash mouth' football is that it's hard for the guys getting smashed in the mouth to do much talking. Case in point: Warren Sapp. Oh he still talked. That mouth is far too big to ever be completely shut. And in lieu of actually being disruptive on the field, Tampa Bay's defensive tackle has made plenty of noise this year, from skipping through opponents warm-ups to bumping officials and whining that the NFL doesn't allow him to market himself. But on Sunday, ol' No. 99 didn't have too much to mouth off about, thanks to a Packers offensive line that blocked, battered and shoved Sapp and his teammates into a 20-13 submission.

Green Bay played for the win, not for revenge. But how could their front five not take satisfaction in getting both last Sunday at Raymond James Stadium? Almost a year after Sapp's totally legal but thoroughly unnecessary blindside hit ended left tackle Chad Clifton's season and put his career in jeopardy, the Packers rolled the defending Super Bowl Champions for 190 yards rushing (after piling up 241 the week before against Philly) and broke Tampa Bay's string of 69 consecutive games with at least one sack.

"That was huge for us," left guard Mike Wahle said of the sack streak. "We knew that coming in that was a big point of emphasis. We didn't want to get Brett (Favre) beat up. He did a great job getting the ball away today ... I think we did a pretty damn good job of keeping them out of his face. And when you're running the ball like that, it put the defense on their heels a little bit and it stops the pass rush. I mean, that's Football 101."

So far, Wahle, Clifton and the rest of the Packers O-line have been acing that course. Right guard Marco Rivera was the lone Pro Bowler among this group last season, but any of the starting five has looked worthy of Pro Bowl, if not All-Pro consideration in 2003. With little fanfare, this group has quietly become one of the best offensive lines in the league, paving the way for the NFL's second-ranked rusher while giving up just 11 sacks. At no time was that excellence more evident than during their 17-play, 98-yard drive that took 9:42 off the clock and culminated with a one-yard touchdown run by Ahman Green to put the Packers on top for good.

Green, 247-pound bruiser back Najeh Davenport and receiver Robert Ferguson may have been the principle players on the drive, but it was tackles Clifton and Mark Tauscher, guards Wahle and Rivera and center Mike Flanagan, not to mention extra blocker Kevin Barry, that provided Favre with impenetrable protection and blasted open Hummer-sized holes on a 98-yard epic that could ultimately define their season.

"Ninety-eight-and-a-half, actually," GM/Coach Mike Sherman. "Yeah, that's about as long as they get. That was a heck of a drive. Our offensive line took control of the game. Our backs ran the ball very effectively during that drive. We had some key third-down conversions as well, which was huge in that drive, a fourth-down conversion. So there were numerous things in that drive to us getting in the end zone."

Give Offensive Line Coach Larry Beightol, one of the true characters of the NFL's coaching fraternity, credit for his masterful game plan against the Bucs eight-man fronts and run blitzes. Running much of the day behind Clifton and a pulling Rivera, Green Bay attacked the weakside of Tampa Bay's defense, taking advantage of end Simeon Rice's weakness as a run stopper.

Even when the Bucs knew where Green Bay was going, it didn't seem to matter. Clifton also made sure Rice, who's tied for the lead in sacks this season with 11, didn't get a sniff of Favre all day.

After last year's face off, Beightol promised that Sapp would be cut-blocked relentlessly when next they met, but with the athletic group of maulers he has at his disposal, that kind of retaliation was hardly needed against Sapp or anyone else. Rivera, who matched up on Sapp for much of the day and held him to a mere two tackles, said it best when he noted that there was enough pain in Tampa Bay's locker room following this loss. Running the ball down someone's throat will have that effect... along with making it a little tough to talk.

W. Keith Roerdink is a freelance writer from Wausau, Wis. and a longtime contributor to the Packer Report. Check out his weekly Hot Read column every Thursday.

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