The end result was a 71-yard touchdown from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas.
It gave the Broncos a 14-13 third-quarter lead. It made Manning the third quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400 touchdowns and the fastest to ever do so. And it gave Denver the spark it needed to finish the game on top.
With the resounding significance of the play’s outcome, it would be a shame to overlook everything that made it possible.
Tight end Jacob Tamme was in the slot, next to Thomas who was out wide. As Thomas caught the short screen pass, Tamme laid a block on cornerback Ike Taylor, who was matched up on Thomas. The block took Taylor out of the play, and with his man sealed, Tamme was able to watch and listen, knowing his job was done.
“I had a block and then I got to watch it go all the way down the field,” Tamme said. “You’re blocking your guy and you hear the crowd. And that’s a good feeling. So, that was awesome.”
Left tackle Ryan Clady had little time to get out of his stance and make a block before the defense collapsed on the screen play. But the 6-foot-6-inch, 315-pound lineman got there just in time and did just enough to get his teammate to the next level. With seven-time Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu closing on Thomas, Clady dove in front of him. Though Polamalu remained on his feet, it re-routed him enough to keep the safety in Thomas’ rearview mirror the rest of the way.
With Polamalu trailing and Taylor sealed on the edge, left guard Zane Beadles emerged as the lead blocker, five yards ahead of Thomas near midfield. Safety Ryan Mundy had an angle, but Beadles made sure Mundy never got his hands on the receiver.
“That was awesome, wasn’t it?” wideout Brandon Stokley smiled as he recalled Beadles’ effort on the play. “I saw him leading the way.
That was a great block to spring it. It was a great team effort.”
But Thomas wasn’t yet in the clear. Thirty yards downfield, after he crossed midfield, cornerback Keenan Lewis was closing from the other side of the field. Luckily for Thomas, wide receiver Matthew Willis had also pursued from the opposite side. Willis stayed between Thomas and the chasing cornerback, using a stiff arm to keep Lewis from impeding the run.
Finally, Thomas was on his own.
“Don’t get caught,” were the words that echoed through his brain as he finished the 71-yard catch-and-run.
And though the actual throw didn’t travel many of the 71 yards, Manning played a much bigger role in the touchdown than just a flick of the wrist.
The play call was discussed in the halftime locker room as a counter to one of Pittsburgh’s defensive schemes. According to teammates, it was the quarterback who headed up that conversation.
“I think that was Peyton coming up with that, with the coaches,” Stokley said. “We went to it one time, the little screen out there, and it popped for 80.”
“We were running the ball on a similar formation in the first half, and (Pittsburgh) kept blitzing off the back side — so it was a kind of halftime adjustment. We thought we could fake that run to the strong side and throw him a screen, but it showed up for a big play.”
After expecting “maybe a 9-yard gain” on the play, the quarterback said he was pleasantly surprised as he watched Thomas run his screen pass into the record books.
“Demaryius did the majority of the work and really turned it on with great speed,” Manning said. “Just a huge play.”
In many ways.