EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Super Bowl was billed for two weeks as Peyton Manning vs. Russell Wilson. Peyton Manning vs. Richard Sherman and the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary. Marshawn Lynch vs. the media.
Turns out, the game was decided by Cliff Avril vs. Orlando Franklin.
Avril, 27, is the Seahawks’ left defensive end. He spent his first five seasons with the Lions after being a third-round pick out of Purdue in 2008, played in exactly one playoff game, and was part of the Lions’ 0-16 team his rookie season. The Lions opted not to re-sign him, and he signed a two-year, $13 million contract with the Seahawks last offseason.
It was, clearly, money well spent.
Avril, a speedy 6-foot-3-inch, 260-pound pass rusher, didn’t win MVP honors on Sunday night — linebacker Malcolm Smith did — and finished with just three tackles, plus two batted passes and two quarterback hits.
But before the game got out of hand in the second half, Avril’s quickness and his ability to beat Franklin around the edge keyed two defining plays in the Seahawks’ 43-8 win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
“I went from 0-16, and now I’m a champ,” Avril said. “I got my hat and we are champs, baby. It doesn’t get any better.”
That was Avril screaming around the corner to get in Manning’s face and force him into a horrible throw over the middle, which was easily intercepted by Kam Chancellor late in the first quarter. Eight plays later, Lynch rumbled in from the 1-yard line to give Seattle a 15-0 lead.
And that was Avril again bull-rushing Franklin in the second quarter, pushing two Broncos right into Manning as he released the throw. The ball popped up in the air, Smith corralled an easy interception and romped 69 yards for the touchdown, and the rout was officially on.
Franklin, the Broncos’ starting right tackle, is a third-year veteran and the team’s second-round pick in 2011. The website Pro Football Focus, which analyzes every snap of every NFL game, rated Franklin as the fourth-best right tackle in the entire NFL this past season, crediting him with only two sacks and 18 pressures allowed in 16 regular-season games.
That rating probably wouldn’t have been so high if Franklin had to face Avril in the regular season. At 6-7, 320 pounds, Franklin was too big to handle Avril’s speed. Franklin was so frustrated Sunday night that he was later flagged for a headbutt.
“He did an extremely good job with his first step,” Franklin said of Avril. “He’s a quick guy. For an offensive tackle, when you face a guy who goes from speed to power, it’s definitely a little bit harder to handle.”
Avril wasn’t a household name before Sunday night, but he wasn’t exactly an unknown, either. He had 39.5 sacks and 16 forced fumbles in five seasons with Detroit. He had a career-high 11 sacks in 2011, prompting the Lions to slap him with the franchise tag in 2012.
The Lions certainly are stacked along the defensive line, but you have to wonder why they let him walk away to the Seahawks last offseason, particularly at a relatively reasonable price.
“We didn’t talk at all last offseason,” Avril said. “I think [the Lions] were just ready to move on, which is understandable. They probably study some guys in the draft or whatever that could replace me. But again, I’m not tripping over it.
“It’s working out for me. I can’t complain. Once again, I’m here at the Super Bowl talking to you guys. I can’t complain at all.”
This was a total team victory in every sense of the phrase for Seattle, which scored touchdowns on offense, defense, special teams, and had a safety, to boot (credited to — who else? — Avril). But the Seahawks’ defensive line, led by Avril, was the reason this game got out of hand so early.
The Seahawks didn’t have a dominant pass rusher during the regular season — Michael Bennett led the team with 8.5 sacks and Avril was second with 8. But they come at you in waves, liberally subbing in Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Tony McDaniel, Brandon Mebane, and Clinton McDonald to keep their pass rushers fresh throughout the game. The Seahawks finished the regular season eighth in the NFL with 44 sacks, and made Manning and the Broncos’ offensive line uncomfortable right from the start, as the flubbed snap and safety on the first play of the game attests.
“You can never have enough pass rushers to finish the game,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “That’s something I really, strongly believe in.”
The Broncos got by all season with a depleted offensive line. They lost center Dan Koppen to a torn Achilles’ early in training camp, and star left tackle Ryan Clady to a broken foot in Week 2.
Center Manny Ramirez and tackle Chris Clark filled in admirably for the Broncos’ first 18 games, but the unit couldn’t contain the Seahawks, who were the No. 1 pass defense and No. 1 total defense this year.
Clemons absolutely dominated Clark on a fourth-and-2 play in the second quarter, forcing an incomplete pass and ending any chance of a Broncos comeback. Avril, for good measure, batted down another pass at the line of scrimmage early in the fourth quarter, and nearly intercepted it.
And the Broncos couldn’t get anything going on the ground, rushing eight times for just 19 yards in the first half (2.4 average) before abandoning the run in the second half.
Manning didn’t play well on Sunday, but his struggles were a total team effort, as well. It’s not easy to move the ball when several defensive linemen are in your face right off the snap.
The Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary got most of the attention in the week leading up to the game, but there’s no question that Avril and the pass rushers were the most valuable players on Sunday.
“They were the reason why the Legion of Boom were who they are, and the linebackers are who we are,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “Cliff has done an amazing job all year — new team and done a great job. Hats off to him, for sure.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.