AFC West: Cliff Avril


There was a time, when John Elway wore a helmet at work instead of a tie, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were division rivals.

From 1977 to 2001, the two teams did their football business together in the AFC West and now these former division rivals, who have gone their separate ways since -- through good times and bad -- now arrive to Super Bowl XLVIII as the matchup many wanted to see.

The Broncos' league-leading scoring offense -- which produced an NFL record 606 points with Peyton Manning at quarterback -- against Seattle's league-leading defense (14.4 points per game), a physical, brash group that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and interceptions.

It is the first time the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense have met in the Super Bowl since 1990, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants authored a classic, a 20-19 Giants win decided when Scott Norwood's kick drifted wide right.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game:

Legwold: Terry, in your mind, what are some of the major decisions John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made to put the Seahawks in this position?

Blount: Jeff, first and foremost, the one decision that almost everyone will point to is selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round draft choice two years ago when so many experts felt Wilson was too short to be an effective starter in today's NFL. That led to another big decision when Carroll named Wilson the starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a big-money deal -- a brave move, to say the least. But pointing to one move doesn't begin to tell the story of a team that Schneider and Carroll completely revamped over the past four seasons. Only four players remain from the team they inherited in 2010. Schneider and Carroll's strengths are their trust in each other and their ability to make stars, or at least quality starters, out of players that other teams overlooked such as cornerback Richard Sherman (a fifth-round pick), slot receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and guard J.R. Sweezy (a seventh-round pick). They also made one of the best trades in team history, acquiring Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo in 2010. It's an example of how Schneider and Carroll are willing to take chances on players who might have had off-the-field issues.

Let me ask you a similar question, Jeff. Elway gets huge props for convincing Manning that Denver was the place for him to end his career, but obviously, it took more than one move to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Aside from Manning, what has made Elway's tenure so successful?

Legwold: Elway's mission, for owner Pat Bowlen, when he took the job, wasn't just to make the team competitive as quickly as possible after the 4-12 finish in 2010, but to fix the cracks in the foundation. This meant addressing the personnel and salary-cap issues that needed to be dealt with if the team was going to succeed over the long term. Elway always says people talk to him about a "win-now philosophy," but he wants the team to win from now on.

Elway and the Broncos' front office cleaned up the cap a bit, and though Elway is a former quarterback, he thinks big picture. They've drafted plenty of defensive players -- 11 of 23 picks under Elway -- and they've made finding the guy they want more important than simply making big-ticket splashes in free agency, other than Manning of course. Signing players to one-year deals with little or no signing bonuses, such as Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), Paris Lenon and Quentin Jammer (two starters and a situational player in the defense), have made it go. Starting center Manny Ramirez was released by the Lions at one point. John Fox, hand-picked by Elway, and his staff also have gotten more from players who were holdovers such as Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Toss in some big-time draft hits -- Von Miller and Julius Thomas -- and you have back-to-back 13-3 finishes.

For their part, the Seahawks have played quality defense all season long. Terry, how do you think they will attack Manning?

Blount: They will line up and say, 'This is who were are and what we do. Beat us if you can.' I honestly don't think they'll change a thing. Whether it's a rookie calling the signals or one of the all-time greats such as Manning, the Seahawks don't believe anyone can outperform their defense. They are as talented a group as I've seen. Two things set them apart: incredible overall speed, especially at the linebacker spots, and a physical approach that borders on all-out violence and intimidation. Calling for crossing patterns over the middle against this bunch is asking for punishment. The one thing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said they will do is change the wording and signals on their calls. And what they must do in this game is get a push up the middle on the defensive front and force Manning to move in the pocket. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald have to outmuscle Denver interior linemen in this game.

Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is an extraordinarily talented group that includes three players who were voted into the Pro Bowl. They play a lot of press coverage and almost dare a quarterback to try to beat them.

Jeff, does man-to-man coverage help or hurt Manning and his receivers?

Legwold: Man coverage almost never hurts Manning, unless those defensive backs consistently knock the Broncos' receivers off their routes, or Mother Nature brings a windy night. And not just a breeze, but something on the order of the 40-mph gusts the team faced on a frigid night at New England this season. But even then Manning was sharp and aggressive on a late drive to tie the game at 31-31. Where some defenses have had some success this season -- Indianapolis, New England and to a certain extent Jacksonville -- was when they essentially tossed aside the idea of adding pressure to try to get Manning, because he gets the ball out too quickly, and play as physically as possible against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt their routes and disrupt the offense's timing. That said, Manning still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts to go with 295 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars. And while the Patriots held him to a season-low 150 yards on Nov. 24, Manning still looked sharp late, throwing the ball in a game in which the Broncos rushed for 280 yards because New England often left six-man fronts after dropping so many players into coverage. In the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, who used much the same philosophy as in November, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The mix for some kind of defensive success is usually to get the Broncos receivers out of sorts and find a way to pressure Manning in the middle of the field so he can't step into the throws.

Staying at quarterback, Terry, how do you think Wilson, certainly well-known for his poise and maturity, will handle his first Super Bowl behind center?

Blount: I realize it's a lot to ask of any second-year quarterback to enter this setting and not have it effect his performance, but Wilson is an extraordinary young man. I've said all season that he has the unusual quality of being at his best when things appear to be at their worst. He thrives on the big stage. I've never seen him rattled, and when he does make a mistake (such as fumbling on the first play in the NFC Championship Game), he acts like it never happened. And I've never seen any athlete who prepares with the time and detail that Wilson prepares. You can't fool him. People often compare him to Fran Tarkenton because of his scrambling ability, which is true. But in some ways, I see him more of a Bart Starr-type quarterback, a man who had the ultimate respect of his teammates, understood the skills of the men around him and made them better. Wilson said his goal every game is to be the calm in the storm and stay in the moment. Well, there's no moment like this one. It's cliché to say, but I think he truly believes he was born for this moment.

Jeff, there has been a lot of talk about how extreme weather conditions could benefit the Seahawks and hinder Manning's ability to throw the football the way he normally would. Do you think that's overblown?

Legwold: There may be no more overblown idea circulating around than Manning's ability to play in the cold. The cold-weather stats are always tossed around, but there are at least two of those games in some of the totals people are using when Manning played only one series because the Colts had their playoff position wrapped up. One of those was in Denver to close out the 2004 regular season (32 degrees at kickoff; Manning threw two passes in the game). The wind has been a far-bigger deal for Manning. Post-surgery, he has had to make some adjustments to his game because of some grip issues in his right hand. He wears a glove on his throwing hand in a variety of temperatures now. This season, he wore it in New England (22 degrees, wind chill of 6 degrees), against Tennessee (18 degrees), as well as in Houston (kickoff temperature was 58 degrees) and at Oakland in the regular-season finale, when the kickoff temperature was 70. And with the glove on his throwing hand in 10 games this season, including both of the Broncos' playoff wins, Manning has thrown 33 touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. He's had four 400-yard games and six games when he attempted at least 40 passes. People have scrutinized every wobble of every pass this season, but somehow he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. And wobbles or not, Manning has not been sacked and the Broncos have punted only once in this postseason.

In the Seahawks' defense, Terry, how big of an impact did signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency have on that group?

Blount: It's this simple: The Seahawks would not be playing in the Super Bowl without them. Seattle's big weakness last year was the lack of a consistent pass rush and a lack of depth on the defensive line. Not anymore. Along with those two, Seattle also signed veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a mountain of a guy who has been a disruptive force inside. Bennett may be the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He has been everything the Seahawks hoped for as a hybrid down linemen who can play end or tackle effectively. He is a relentless, high-motor guy who never takes a play off. Avril is a gifted speed-rusher whose claim to fame is his uncanny ability to knock the ball out of a quarterback's hands and force a fumble, something he has done five times this season and 13 times over the past three years.

Jeff, everyone talks about the matchup between the Seahawks' No. 1 defense against the Broncos' No. 1 offense, but how do you think Denver's defense matches up against Seattle's offense and its power-running game with Lynch?

Legwold: Since Champ Bailey's full return from a left foot injury he originally suffered against the Seahawks in the preseason -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season and was shut down for several weeks after a failed return in early December -- the team has played far better. It's surrendered 17 or fewer points in each of the past four games, including both playoff wins. And while Denver's numbers, as well as its play at times for that matter, haven't always been pretty, the Broncos do play better out of their base defense.

They will be in their base defense against the Seahawks if Seattle chooses to pound Lynch out of a two-tight-end or two-back set. They inserted a veteran, Lenon, into the middle linebacker spot down the stretch in the base to add some bulk. With Lenon, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan at linebacker, they have speed to the ball if their defensive end can consistently set the edge. Against some of the power teams they have faced this season, including those with some read-option things in the offense such as Washington and Oakland, the Broncos showed a little more of a 3-4 look on early downs. It will be intriguing if the Seahawks -- seeing the Broncos have done far better in the heavier looks -- try to run against the nickel and dime packages and how the Broncos respond.

Terry, if the Seahawks win, what players beyond Wilson will have had the biggest roles to make it happen?

Blount: Probably the defensive linemen we mentioned earlier: Bennent, Avril and the defensive tackles getting pressure on Manning. If they do, the Legion of Boom will shine and come up with an interception or two that could change the outcome. No matter how well this rugged defense performs, it won't matter unless Wilson can throw effectively. Having receiver Percy Harvin on the field could help, but it really comes down to the same story all season. If Lynch has a punishing day running the ball, someone will be open for a big play in the passing game.

Jeff, if you had to pick one thing that Denver must do to win this game what would it be?

Legwold: Overall, they have to manage the moment. Teams don't win the Super Bowl as they go through all the build-up, but plenty have lost it when they got distracted by the bright lights and attention only to forget why they were in the Super Bowl city in the first place. As Phillips put it: "If guys want to party in New York, New York will still be there next week." But on the field, they have to keep Manning clean, give him some space to work in the pocket and with that their receivers have to play with an edge, fight for both their real estate and the ball.

Mid-week mail call:

Andrew from Chicago wants to know if I think Denver could be interested in Detroit free-agent defensive end Cliff Avril.

Bill Williamson: I doubt it. Denver has some strong pass-rushers and Avril be heavily sought-after. I think the Broncos will have other needs (starting on the interior defensive line) and Avril will get better offers.




Andrew Luna from Los Angeles wants to know if I think the Chargers could take Wisconsin running back Montee Ball in the second round of the draft.

BW: I like Ball a lot. I think he is going to be a standout runner, and that he could be an intriguing idea for San Diego. But I also think the Chargers could find a complement to Ryan Mathews in free agency. I can see this pairing working in the right situation -- but I’m not sure if it is likely.




Dan from Mansfield, Pa., wants to know if I think the Raiders could take injured South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in the middle rounds, similar to what they did in drafting an injured Michael Bush in 2007.

BW: I wouldn’t necessarily connect the dots here. This is a different regime than the one that drafted Bush. Oakland will likely add a running back in some form, but I wouldn’t necessarily say the Raiders are a favorite to land Lattimore.


Talking with Chargers GM A.J. Smith

February, 23, 2012
2/23/12
5:35
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INDIANAPOLIS -- I had a chance to meet with San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith on Thursday.

In the big picture, Smith said his team must address its defense as it attempts another playoff run. However, Smith’s most pressing issue is the offensive line. Smith said the line “is the area that is causing [him] to lose sleep.”

However, Smith may rest easy soon enough. There may be more clarity on the group in the near future. Center Nick Hardwick is a free agent and has said he wants to return. Smith wants him back, but a deal has to be completed.

Guard Kris Dielman is coming off a concussion that ended his 2011 season prematurely. He has even considered retiring. But he is expected to play, even though a final decision hasn’t been made.

The team is expected to release left tackle Marcus McNeill, who is dealing with a possible career-ending neck injury. He is due a bonus early next month. Jared Gaither took over for McNeill last season and did well. The team hopes to re-sign him in free agency but, like Hardwick, there are no guarantees.

“We don’t know how it will play out on the line,” Smith said. “A lot of things can happen. There are things we want to happen, but that doesn’t mean they will happen. But we will know soon enough.”

What Smith wants to see is improvement on defense. Smith said he is excited about new defensive coordinator John Pagano, who was a longtime assistant coach in San Diego. The Chargers' defense sagged in its one year under former coordinator Greg Manusky, who was fired in January.

Smith said the key to improving the defense is becoming a better unit on third down. The team was last in the NFL in getting off the field on third down in 2011. “That is the first thing we have to figure out,” Smith said.

Smith said he is excited about several players, including young defensive linemen Corey Liuget, Vaughn Martin and Cam Thomas. The Chargers, who may cut Luis Castillo, will add to the line, and they are expecting big things from the unit under Pagano’s guidance.

Smith wouldn’t specifically address getting pass-rushers in free agency, but he did say the team needs more of them. If the Chargers do look at pass-rushers on the open market, the Colts’ Robert Mathis and the Lions’ Cliff Avril (if he isn’t given the franchise tag) could be intriguing options.

Smith said he wants to keep receiver Vincent Jackson but wouldn’t say whether he thinks Jackson will stay. I think the team’s best scenario is to let Jackson explore his options in free agency and then try to sign him. That was the tact the team used with safety Eric Weddle last year. Unless other events unfold unexpectedly, don’t expect the Chargers to give Jackson the franchise tag.

Smith said he was pleased to see quarterback Philip Rivers finish the season strong and that he's not concerned about Rivers experiencing early-season struggles again like he did last year.

“He was pressing” Smith said. “He knows it. That happens, but Philip is fine.”

Report: Hardwick won't retire

February, 14, 2012
2/14/12
12:15
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As expected, center Nick Hardwick will play in 2012.

Whether it will be with the San Diego Chargers is up to the team. Hardwick is a free agent and he raised questions about his future late in the season when he said he was considering retirement. Yet, Hardwick, 30, told UT San Diego that he will play in 2012. It would have been a major shock had Hardwick retired.

Hardwick told the paper he wants to stay in San Diego and I fully expect the Chargers to re-sign him.

It appears San Diego will have more continuity on the offensive line than it could have had. The paper reiterated that guard Kris Dielman is expected to play. There was a chance he could retire because of a serious concussion that ended his season early. The team is expected to cut left tackle Marcus McNeill and it could re-sign Jared Gaither or draft a tackle with the No. 18 pick.

In other AFC West news:

The Raiders have a connection to one of the bigger name free agents on the market. New Oakland defensive line coach Terrell Williams coached Detroit defensive lineman Cliff Avril at Purdue. Avril will be one of the best players on the market. Avril, who could be franchised in Detroit, could play linebacker in a 3-4 if the Raiders would be interested in that situation.

Still, other needs and a potential limited salary cap could make Avril a tough get in Oakland.

Former Oakland cornerback Stanford Routt met the media during his visit with Buffalo on Monday and declined to focus on his time with the Raiders. Oakland cut him on Monday. Routt will visit the Chiefs on Tuesday.

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