The Denver Broncos' offensive line was one of the NFL's best during the regular season. Pro Football Focus ranked it second in pass blocking, behind only the Cincinnati Bengals', and it allowed a league-low 20 sacks. But in the quiet AFC locker room after Super Bowl XLVIII, its members were clearly the most battered, in every way, of a thoroughly battered team.
Right guard Louis Vasquez appeared unable to bend over to clear the equipment he had shed from in front of his stall. A clubhouse attendant had to do it for him. A couple of lockers over, left tackle Chris Clark sat hunched over, dejectedly plucking pieces of confetti from his helmet, one by one. The confetti was blue and green, the colors of the Seattle Seahawks.
The ultimate outcome had not been in doubt for long, in large measure because of the dominance, on this evening in New Jersey, of the Seahawks' defensive front, and the Broncos line's struggles in trying to contend with it.
The line's troubles began on the game's first snap, when center Manny Ramirez hiked the ball past Peyton Manning. The ball ended up in the end zone, where running back Knowshon Moreno fell on it and was tackled by defensive end Cliff Avril for a safety.
"It was real loud," Ramirez explained. "We're trying to go on the cadence. I thought I heard him. I didn't. He was actually walking up to me, because he'd already said the cadence. Then I snapped it. I take full responsibility. That was the first time where we lost it that way all year."
Avril, the 27-year-old former Lion who was signed as a free agent to a deal that proved to be one of the offseason's best bargains (two years, $13 million), would be centrally involved in the play that proved to be the game's most pivotal. It came on a Broncos 3rd and 13 with 3:37 remaining in the second quarter, and with the Seahawks, despite their rather complete early control, leading a not-yet-insurmountable 15-0.
Manning dropped back and immediately faced pressure from both ends -- Avril and Chris Clemons (the latter representing Clark's blocking assignment), who closed in on him like a scorpion's pincer. Orlando Franklin, the right tackle assigned to block Avril, described what happened.
"He just went speed to power," Franklin said, describing a trick in any good defensive ends' repertoire in which he initially feigns as if he will be attempting an outside speed rush, and then quickly redirects his efforts right at a lineman's chest, throwing him off balance and pushing him back. "Hat goes off to him. Speed to power. Speed to rush. He bull-rushed me.
"He did a great job getting off the ball. He did an extremely good job with his first step. He's a quick guy. For an offensive tackle, generally when you go speed to power and you have a guy that's out there that's fast, it's definitely a little bit harder to handle."
Franklin, a 26-year-old from Toronto, is much larger than Avril -- he is 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds, to Avril's 6-foot-3 and 260 -- but Avril's move allowed him to push the offensive lineman back into Manning. Avril revealed that he had been setting his trap for some time.
"I did a decent job of setting it up early to give me those speed to powers, just switching up your pass rush," he said. "You don't give them the same thing every time. Last couple games, I haven't done too many power moves, so I gave 'em power early, then off the edge, then power."
Said Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, "Those guys have been totally geared up for this for two weeks, in terms of the way we practiced, the way we rush. He's got such a good get-off, that for Cliff, when he can work the guy back inside, he gets off and the guy has to bail, then he can change it up and use his power. He's a strong guy."
Quinn also added that the Seahawks had put a lot of time into studying Manning's tricky cadences, so that they would not only not be drawn offsides (as they weren't a single time during the game) but could time his snaps.
"Yeah, for like the last two weeks, for sure," Quinn said. "From video to TV stuff to on the field. We know he's terrific at it. We knew it first hand, and his brother's pretty good at it too. It was a big point for us."
Avril drove Frankin towards Manning, with Clemons closing in from the back side, and then Avril put his right hand up as he drew near. He made contact with the quarterback's arm and altered the trajectory of his pass, which was intended for Moreno.
"For us, we have a big emphasis on tips and overthrows," explained Quinn. "When a ball is tipped, and there's a chance to go up, we make sure to try to get it at the highest point. Once we get it, it's how fast we can get some blocks and go score."
The pass tumbled through the air, and while it appeared as if Moreno might have a play on it, or at least to knock it down, he continued to drift downfield, perhaps mesmerized by Manning's duck. Malcolm Smith, the Seahawks' outside linebacker, attacked. Smith, the 24-year-old former seventh-round draft pick who would be named the game's MVP, had never had an interception in his three-year career until Week 16 of this season. Now he grabbed his fourth pick in his last five games.
"He probably wasn't anticipating us to be right there," said Smith of Moreno, "but we're a fast defense, and if the ball's in the air that long, we're going to have a chance to make a play."
Added Quinn: "That sounds like Malcolm. That's a ballhawk, and a guy who really goes after the ball, and that's Malcolm."
Smith caught the ball at the Seahawks' own 31 yard line. What happened next was academic. He raced, untouched, down the left sideline, 61 yards for a touchdown that would put the Seahawks up 22-0, and the game out of reach.
The play was the result of many things, but it did not stem from anything unexpected on the part of the Seahawks' scheme.
"They didn't do anything out of character for them," said Broncos' left guard Zane Beadles.
Quinn confirmed that his message to his defense for the past two weeks was as follows: "Let's not throw what we've been doing for the last 22 weeks out to make up new stuff. Let's play like we play."
Playing like they play meant relying on their power -- or, in this particular case, on their "speed to power" -- and their aggressive ballhawking, both of which proved far too much for the Broncos to contend with. There was, Franklin underscored, one man who should not receive the lion's share of the blame.
"It's unfortunate that a lot of people are going to look at this game and try to put it on 18, but he definitely doesn't deserve that, and we all had a hand in this loss," Franklin said.
He was, of course, referring to the jersey number worn by Peyton Manning.