JERSEY CITY — When Broncos nose tackle Terrance Knighton sacked Tom Brady on fourth down in the third quarter of the AFC Championship game, it’s fair to say it was met with mixed emotions by his friends and family.
They were happy to see Knighton make a big play in the biggest game of his career. On the other hand, as Connecticut natives and Patriots fans, Brady’s well-being was also a concern.
“They were excited about it, the opportunity of playing against them to go to the Super Bowl, but their main concern was me not falling on Tom Brady and hurting Tom Brady,” Knighton said on Wednesday, smiling. “So they’re happy for two things: One, Tom Brady’s not hurt, and two, me going to the Super Bowl.”
Rather than Stephen Gostkowski attempting a 47-yard field goal that could have cut the Patriots’ deficit to 14 points, New England opted to go for it on fourth and 3 from the Denver 29.
But almost as soon as the ball was snapped, Knighton cleanly beat Logan Mankins and took down Brady for a 10-yard loss. The Broncos then went down the field, stalled in the red zone, and kicked a short field goal to increase their lead.
“When they came out in a certain formation, they sent a guy in motion and Tom Brady and the center, they made a check, and I knew I was going to get a one-on-one with Logan Mankins,” Knighton explained. “How I’d been rushing him the whole game, I knew exactly how he was going to set me, and I just hit him with something different that he hadn’t seen all game. “I was using power moves all game. A lot of guys see me and they expect power moves because I’m a big guy, but I just wanted to switch it up on him, and I set him up for a finesse move and it was perfect timing.”
Timing is coming into play for Knighton on the national stage, as well. The affable big man — he’s listed at 6 feet 3 inches, 335 pounds, with one of the biggest “bubbles,” as scouts call a player’s rear end, in the game. It’s an asset in his job.
A third-round pick of the Jaguars in 2009, Knighton played in 61 games (49 starts) with Jacksonville, and signed a two-year free agent deal with Denver last March. He anchored the Broncos’ defensive line this season, starting all 16 games, and keyed one of the best run defenses in the league.
The big man made a big play on the big stage, and seems to have a big personality to match. He also has a nickname made for Super Bowl week, where every quirk could become a story line: Pot Roast.
“Six-hour flight. Guys are tired. Plane is dark, and the lady is walking down the aisle saying, ‘Pot roast, pot roast,’ ” Knighton said. “And I’m like, ‘Right here, right here.’ My teammate behind me was like, ‘You’re saying that like that’s your name. I’m going to call you Pot Roast.’ And then it stuck with me.
“It was either that or shrimp Alfredo, so I’m glad I got that.”
The sack of Brady, combined with his nickname, has brought Knighton a new level of attention, and the 27-year old, who played at Temple, is relishing it.
“The most I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’ve been doing so many media requests on the phone and interviews and appearances and things like that. With team success comes player success.”
He joked that maybe a Super Bowl win would lead to him getting some endorsements, perhaps with Chunky Soup — as the face of a pot roast flavor, of course.
With the Seahawks featuring one of the game’s most punishing running backs, Marshawn Lynch, some are saying Knighton could be the most important defensive player in Super Bowl XLVIII, and he could be.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has seen Knighton improve throughout his first season with the Broncos.
“Terrance really responded at a time when we needed him the most,” said Del Rio. “We lost five or six key guys throughout the course of the year . . . Basically, it became, ‘Look, we really need you to step up and not just play well. We need you to step up and lead, help Sly [rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams] be comfortable with you, talk with him.’ He’s really taken that and run with it. He’s embraced the role.
“He’s played well and he’s done more things behind the scenes, aside from playing well, in terms of leadership and helping Sly play at a better level.”
Though he’s undoubtedly a tackle now, Knighton was a standout receiver/tight end in addition to defensive end at Windsor (Conn.) High. That athleticism, reminiscent of the Patriots’ Vince Wilfork, is a big part of Knighton’s game.
“I grew up a Patriots fan and I watched [Wilfork] all the time,” said Knighton. “A lot of people get caught up in the mystique of big guys just taking up space, but Wilfork has great feet, he has great instincts, and that’s something I modeled myself after. Just being a quick guy laterally and making plays in the backfield. Him and Haloti [Ngata of the Ravens], they’re probably guys I watch the most.”
Wilfork and Ngata have long been considered among the best defensive tackles in the league. But they won’t be playing on Sunday. Pot Roast will, and he’ll be looking for his chance to have an impact on the game.