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The Broncos drove to the Washington 26, but Karlis then missed a 43-yard field goal attempt. Two plays earlier, left tackle Dave Studdard, who had been matched up against Redskins defensive end Dexter Manley, was helped off the field with a sprained left knee. To control Manley, who was now working against Keith Kartz, a strike-replacement player, the Broncos had to leave in a back, usually 210-pound Steve Sewell, to block. That took a valuable receiver out of their passing attack. Things were falling apart for Denver. On the Redskins' sideline Gibbs was huddling with offensive line coach Joe Bugel and back-field coach Don Breaux.
"Joe asked me, 'What do you think, Buges?' " said Bugel after the game. "Breaux and I both said, 'Don't give up on the Counter Gap.' They'd been playing a stunting type of defense, a guessing defense, and they'd guessed right in the first quarter and given us a couple of minuses on that play. Against stunting defenses like the Broncos use you have to pull your guard and the tackle to the opposite side. It's a precision play, and when the timing's a little off, well, it can look ugly. Maybe in the first quarter we were a little overanxious, and the timing wasn't right. But Breaux and I both felt it would come."
Washington started its third drive of the quarter on its own 26. On first down Clark curled inside for a 16-yard reception. "It was a cover-three zone," he said. "They were laying back. There was a big hole. Maybe it was because they'd been burned already."
The next play was Smith's biggie, 58 yards for a touchdown on the Counter Gap over the right side, with Jacoby and McKenzie pulling and tight ends Didier and Don Warren cutting off the pursuit. "It seemed like it was going to be a tight squeeze," said Smith. "I had to take it inside. I don't know, it just popped."
Smith had run for only 126 yards during the regular season but had gained 66 and 72 yards, respectively, in Washington's two previous postseason games. He was a surprise starter, at least to the 73,302 fans in the stands and to the 45 Broncos on the sideline who saw George Rogers introduced with the Redskins' offense. Gibbs said he had decided to start Smith on Saturday night. He thought the Broncos would be pinching inside and he wanted someone speedier than Rogers in the lineup.
"We told Smith he was starting right before the kickoff," said Bugel. "He took it very calmly. We told him we were going to run outside at the beginning and we wanted him in there for five or six plays. We didn't tell him earlier because we didn't want to make him nervous. We didn't want the guy vomiting in the locker room, like we'd have to throw a smoke bomb to get him out on the field."
Smith's 58-yard TD put Washington ahead 21-10, and the Broncos were in shock. On the sideline the Redskins linemen were telling Bugel to keep calling the Counter Gap. "The Broncos were playing a variety of Buddy Ryan's Bear defense, where they line up men over both guards and the center," said Bugel. "So we went to a counterattack. If you hit it right against that defense, you can break something big."
The Denver defense had sagged noticeably late in the season. The Cleveland Browns came back strong against the Broncos in the AFC Championship. So did the Kansas City Chiefs on the penultimate weekend of the regular season. Many observers think that Denver's small defensive linemen wear down against constant pounding. "I don't think they wear down—I think it is simply mistakes," said Bronco coach Dan Reeves a week before the Super Bowl. "Whatever it is, it worries me. We blew two 17-point leads. With a defense as strong as Washington's we don't want to get in a scoring match with them."
The Skins began their fourth series of the quarter on their own 40. They moved primarily through the air. After Williams found Sanders on a 10-yard slant, he lofted the 50-yarder to Sanders, who had gone in motion and run a post pattern to beat free safety Tony Lilly, who was limping with a bruised hip. "We'd set 'em up with the run," said Sanders. "The pass was a sucker play, off a good run fake. When the free safety came up, I knew I had him."
The Broncos needed a long drive to give their defense some rest, but on second-and-two on their own 41, El-way tried throwing a bomb to Nattiel. This time Wilburn stayed with Nattiel and intercepted the pass on the Washington 21. Back to the run went the Skins, this time breaking Smith for 43 yards on the Counter Gap off the left side, with guard RC Thielemann getting the key trap block on Karl Mecklenburg. "They were in shock," said Thielemann. "They couldn't believe we were running for this kind of yardage on them."