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SUPER BOWL XXII : THE GAME : THIS ONE SMARTS : Bronco Defense Gave Way on Chalkboard and Kept Giving, Even After It Hurt

February 01, 1988|BILL PLASCHKE | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Tony Lilly carefully fitted himself into the silver crutches, the metal kind with slots for your lower arms. He took a step, rested, then took another.

It was getting late in the postgame locker room, and the Denver Broncos safety was trying to leave. The badly bruised hip let him know that it wouldn't be easy. Even after he left, it wouldn't be easy.

"I'm sorry," he said, excusing himself from Super Bowl XXII Sunday after his Broncos had lost, 42-10, to the Washington Redskins. "But I'm kind of hurting."

With 4:34 left in the second quarter, on a long pass from Redskin quarterback Doug Williams to Ricky Sanders, Lilly had been given a good lick by wide receiver Art Monk.

Lilly was so stunned, he tried to turn out of the way and wound up stretching what felt like 17 muscles while falling on his hip.

"I kind of did the splits," he said.

Kind of like everybody else in his huddle. From painful, to awkward, to flat-out embarrassing, the Denver defense broke ground in Sunday's loss, plenty of ground, more than enough in which to bury themselves.

They allowed Doug Williams to become the best passer in Super Bowl history (340 yards), Timmy Smith the best runner (204 yards) and Redskin punter Steve Cox the most bored starter.

After the game's first 14 1/2 minutes, Cox just watched.

The Broncos were party to allowing 14 offensive records, which, if the National Football League ever kept track of Super Bowl black eyes, would surely be another record.

If the Redskins didn't knock them out, they certainly left them speechless.

"No talk," cornerback Steve Wilson said.

"Please, no more," said safety Dennis Smith, waving his hands after several interviews. "Please, please, I've got no more to say."

It left others sleepy.

"This was what happens in my worst dreams." defensive end Andre Townsend said. "If I wanted to picture in my mind the worst thing that could happen to us, I would picture this."

It left others, significant others, angry.

"When they score 35 points a quarter, you obviously have to look at the defensive scheme," Bronco owner Pat Bowlen said quietly. "And it isn't like one guy got beat. Everybody got beat. Losing is one thing. Getting embarrassed is another."

As best as those in the locker room could figure, this is what happened:

The game was lost not so much in the trenches or secondary or any other place anybody could see. It was lost at the chalkboard.

Everyone knew the Denver defense was smaller, giving up about 30 pounds per player in the line. Everyone knew the Denver defense was slower. Everyone knew it was more inexperienced.

So it had to be smarter. And it wasn't.

"Look at their blocking," linebacker Karl Mecklenburg said. "Either we would stop their runners at the line of scrimmage, or they would get at least 20 yards downfield. That means that they were doing different things with the schemes.

"They were blocking defensive backs with wide receivers. They were cutting off the back-side pursuit with linemen."

In laymen's terms? "They were constantly keeping us off-balance."

Said Townsend: "A hole was there, the hole would close, and they would find another hole."

Said nose tackle Greg Kragen: "We lined up this way and that way, and not once did we play it right."

How the second quarter looked, that much will be replayed on sports shows for days. Ricky Sanders outrunning the entire Mountain time zone. Timmy Smith running through holes the size of the wallets carried by the folks in 50-yard line seats.

But here's how the second quarter felt:

"I think more than anything, I'll remember their second touchdown," said linebacker Jim Ryan of the 27-yard pass from Doug Williams to Gary Clark in corner of the end zone. "We had a delayed blitz on, and I was the guy blitzing, and I was coming clean . . .

"Then, as soon as I get my hands on Williams, he get that pass off. I don't know how, but he gets it off."

Ryan shrugged. "Now that rattled me. Made me think, maybe this thing is not going to go my way."

Then this from Mecklenburg: "What it's like is, getting to Williams, and knocking him down, and then turning to look what happened. Way downfield, somebody is catching the ball and running for a touchdown. Running and running. I'm lying there, and it seems like forever their guy is running to the score."

Defensive coordinator Joe Collier didn't stick around to say how it felt. While many reporters were walking into the locker room, Collier was hurrying out. After 19 years with the Broncos, the veteran assistant came under great fire this season. Although no one would say it directly, expect that heat to increase.

"We were down, 14-10, and it was still OK, and then all of a sudden we were down, 35-10, and everybody was scratching their heads," Bowlen said. "For us to come back from that second quarter, it would have been the greatest comeback in the history of pro sports, period."

Remember, this is not the first time for these men. Most of this had happened to most all of them last year, in the Super Bowl, against the New York Giants--"It actually felt like the second half of last year," Ryan said.

But the Denver defense thought it had learned from last year.

"I don't know what it is about big games," Mecklenburg said. "I don't know why, or how, we can continue to perform like this in big games."

He looked around a locker room that had emptied within 30 minutes of the game.

"I wish I knew what to do to make it better," he said. "I'm the defensive leader of this team, I'm supposed to know. I wish I did."

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