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24 Nov 2004

Every Play Counts: Mike Wahle

By Michael David Smith

I recall a lot of football commentators in my youth pointing out good plays and saying, "Young players watching this at home, look at this perfect technique." They never say that anymore.

But I wish Paul Maguire, Joe Theismann and Mike Patrick would have said it on Sunday night. (Maybe they could have found time between the 27th and 28th time they told us that Brett Favre is David Carr's idol.) The player the announcers should have highlighted is Packers left guard Mike Wahle, who provided what could have been an offensive lineman's training video. I watched Wahle on every play of the Packers' 16-13 win over the Texans on Sunday, and I found him to be a perfect example of how a lineman should play.

According to the Football Outsiders offensive line rankings, last year the Packers led the league in running to the right; this year they're No. 8. You'd think that would be a credit to right tackle Mark Tauscher and right guard Marco Rivera, but what's fascinating about the Packers' blocking scheme is that on almost every run to the right, it's their left guard who makes the key block. It sounds strange to say that until you watch the Packers' line play. When they run to the right Wahle pulls and becomes a lead blocker. He covers the 10 yards or so he needs to run as quickly as a fullback, but when he gets there his blocks deliver more punishment than any fullback could inflict.

Against the Texans' 3-4 defense, Wahle's assignment was usually to hit the inside linebacker on the opposite side. On most plays that linebacker was Jamie Sharper, who entered the game averaging more than six tackles per contest but finished with only two on Sunday. Wahle repeatedly frustrated Sharper, starting with the first play, on Ahman Green's seven yard run directly behind the pulling Wahle.

(I should acknowledge that Wahle was called for holding twice when he pulled out in front on Tony Fisher's runs to the right. I thought both calls were questionable; the TV camera angles made it hard to tell.)

As impressive as Wahle is when he pulls on running plays, I was actually more impressed by his pass blocking. Wahle is great at picking off rushing linebackers, a particularly important skill when taking on a 3-4 defense. On one play the Texans had four pass rushers coming to the right side of the Packers' line. Most of the time that would mean either everyone on the Packers' line would have to shift to the right at the snap or a fullback would have to pick up a blitzer, but instead Wahle saw that the Texans were overloaded to his right, pulled around center Grey Ruegamer, and got to the blitzing backer in time to protect Brett Favre. And when he pass blocks Wahle looks like he never forgot the fundamentals his high school coaches taught him: Head up, butt down, feet moving.

Wahle also seems to understand that pass blocking isn't just about keeping a defensive player from sacking your quarterback; it's also about opening passing lanes. Early in the third quarter Wahle turned around, saw Favre behind him, and ducked so Favre could throw over him. Later in the third quarter Wahle rolled right with Favre and blocked the defensive end on the other side. Favre was more effective throwing down the middle than to the sidelines because Wahle and Rivera opened passing lanes.

Another interesting aspect of Wahle's technique is that he often hits defensive linemen low. But there's a key distinction between Wahle's method of blocking and the George Foster, blindside cheap-shot method. Wahle's low blocks come only when he's face-to-face with his opponent. That will be the only legal form of cut blocking in 2005 if the competition committee listens to the pleas of defensive linemen everywhere.

Wahle is fast, but he's not particularly strong, and his biggest weakness is that he's not as good at the point of attack as he is as a pulling guard. On one run in the second quarter he took on Robaire Smith face-up and couldn't open a hole, allowing Smith to tackle Green for a one-yard gain. Wahle is the strength of the Packers' line, but that doesn't mean they should run behind him.

I began by pointing out that ESPN's announcers follow one plot (the up-and-coming Carr against the elder statesman Favre) and stick with it, rather than picking up on the intricacies of the game, like line play. But I do think ESPN's production is first-rate, especially when it comes to showing replays that show how the line is blocking. ESPN shows end zone replays more than the other networks, and that's where you really see which linemen are effective. It's much easier to evaluate linemen during an ESPN game than on the other networks. And on Sunday night, Wahle gave us a performance to savor.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 24 Nov 2004