EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Malcolm Smith always was ready to step in when the Seattle Seahawks needed him.
Now he’s only the third linebacker in NFL history to earn Super Bowl MVP honors.
Smith returned an interception of regular-season MVP Peyton Manning 69 yards for a touchdown in the first half, recovered a fumble in the second half, and was part of a dominating defensive performance by Seattle during its 43-8 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday night.
“I woke up jumping, bouncing,” Smith said when presented with a truck amid the confetti-strewn field after the game. “It turned out great for us tonight.”
Sure did. And it was rather appropriate that a member of Seattle’s league-leading “D” would be the MVP of the Super Bowl, considering the way the Seahawks shut down Manning and Denver’s record-breaking offense, forcing four turnovers and holding the Broncos scoreless until the last play of the third quarter.
Midway through the second quarter, the Denver Broncos, so fortunate to be down only two scores, finally rediscovered their offensive rhythm and seemed on the verge of getting back in the Super Bowl.
Instead, it was the Seattle defense scoring, and the Seahawks pulling away.
Down 15-0 with more than 5 minutes left in the first half Sunday, Peyton Manning had driven Denver 52 yards to the Seattle 32. But on first down, offensive lineman Zane Beadles was penalized for tripping, and it got worse from there. On third-and-13, the Seahawks rushed four, but two linemen got to Manning.
Chris Clemons was about to slam into the quarterback from behind, but Cliff Avril had already reached him after beating tackle Orlando Franklin. Avril struck Manning’s arm as he was releasing the ball, and it wobbled through the air.
Malcolm Smith was easily able to step in front of Knowshon Moreno for the interception. At 6-feet, 226 pounds, the linebacker outran the Broncos for a 69-yard return for a touchdown.
It was the longest since Tracy Porter’s 74-yarder late in the fourth quarter four years ago to clinch the Super Bowl title for the New Orleans Saints against the Indianapolis Colts. The quarterback he picked off? Manning.
Smith joined Ray Lewis of Baltimore in 2001, and Chuck Howley of Dallas in 1971 as the only linebackers to be picked as the top player in a Super Bowl. Only eight of 48 Super Bowls have ended with a defensive player getting the honor; the last example was Tampa Bay Buccaneers free safety Dexter Jackson in 2003.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas were first-team All-Pro selections this season, and both finished among the top five vote-getters for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Safety Kam Chancellor was a second-team All-Pro choice.
That trio of defensive backs is part of a talented secondary known as the “Legion of Boom,” and guys such as Smith often get overshadowed.
But it was Smith who wound up with the victory-sealing interception at the end of Seattle’s NFC championship game victory over the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago, grabbing the football after Sherman tipped it away from receiver Michael Crabtree in the end zone.
And then, in the biggest game of all, Smith’s pick-6 made it 22-0 late in the first half Sunday, and Seattle was on its way. He grabbed a fumble in the third quarter, too, as the Seahawks made sure the Broncos never made things interesting.
In many ways, Smith is emblematic of Seattle’s success this season.
First and foremost, he plays defense, the unit that is the heart and soul of the team.
He’s relatively young, in only his third year in the league.
He was not a high draft pick, taken in the seventh round out of Southern California, where he played for current Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
Pegged mainly as a special teams guy, his speed and ability to handle both outside linebacker slots earned notice.
When Bruce Irvin was suspended for four games in May for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, it was Smith who filled in as a starter.
When Bobby Wagner was sidelined, and K.J. Wright slid over to middle linebacker, Smith got another opportunity to start. And when Wright broke his right foot, well guess who Seattle called upon? Yep, Smith, of course.
Then suddenly, on Sunday, there he was at the Super Bowl, in the right place and right time, as usual.
This year’s game was over much sooner.
Smith dunked the ball over the upright in celebration, and Seattle led 22-0 with 3:21 left in the half.
Manning could only shake his head on the sideline.