'Beast Quake' aftershocks still felt

Marshawn Lynch

Many of those who were on the field that day swear they remember the ground quaking beneath their feet when Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch went "Beast Mode" on the New Orleans Saints.

And technically, they're not exaggerating. Seismic activity was actually recorded outside the Seahawks' home stadium during Lynch's stunning 67-yard touchdown run that clinched a 41-36 playoff victory over the reigning Super Bowl champions on Jan. 8, 2011.

In truth, it was Seattle's raucous "12th Man" crowd that shook the stands enough to produce those vibrations in the ground. But the way that run is remembered, it's almost as though Lynch was shaking the earth himself with each thunderous step -- like he was Paul Bunyan in football pads -- while he tossed aside a series of Saints defenders on his way into the end zone.

"Best run I've ever seen in my life," Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung, one of Lynch's linemen that day, said last week. "It was very exhilarating. I kind of stopped and watched at one point, just in awe. I was amazed."

Like any good modern-day tall tale, the video has become a YouTube sensation. And you'll see the highlight countless times Monday, leading up to the rematch between the Seahawks (10-1) and Saints (9-2) on ESPN's "Monday Night Football."

You'll see Lynch emerging from a scrum at the line of scrimmage, bouncing free from his first broken tackle. Then you'll see him gain momentum as he bursts through a series of hapless defenders, hopelessly trying to bring him down with an arm tackle or a leg grab. Then you'll see the stiff-arm -- or was it a left hook? -- that sent cornerback Tracy Porter reeling and cemented Lynch's run as one of the all-time classics.

But if you weren't there to experience it firsthand, well, then, you'll just have to settle for the legend.

"If you wasn't in this stadium to see it and to hear it, I feel that you're bein' shortchanged by watching the video. It was that damn loud," Lynch said recently when he opened up to ESPN's "E:60" for a rare interview. "That was Beast Mode."

To try to capture that visceral experience, ESPN.com contacted 14 players who were on the field -- and one All-Pro quarterback who was on the sideline -- for one of the greatest plays in NFL playoff history.

Not surprisingly, some of the memories were fonder than others.

"It was a really cool play I'll remember the rest of my life," said former Seahawks left guard Tyler Polumbus, now with the Washington Redskins. "That city erupted and literally caused an earthquake. It was an amazing experience."

"I cannot let that play die down," said former Saints safety Darren Sharper, who is now an analyst for the NFL Network and still gets teased about the play. "It just keeps coming back -- Beast Mode -- like a thorn in my side. Like a bad rash that keeps coming back."

It feels like ancient history now, almost three years later. But at the time, Lynch was still considered a bit of an underachiever through his first four NFL seasons.

The Buffalo Bills drafted the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder with the 12th overall pick in 2007. After two solid years, his production started to tail off. Lynch also battled off-the-field legal troubles that led to a three-game suspension. Eventually, he was traded to Seattle in the middle of that 2010 season.

Although the Seahawks fan base quickly warmed to Lynch's rugged running style, it wasn't until the 3:38 mark of the fourth quarter of that playoff game that he truly earned the reputation he has today as arguably the NFL's most punishing runner.

"I think, in a way, it resurrected Marshawn Lynch's career. Ever since that run, he's been a lot more talked about," said former Saints linebacker Scott Shanle, whose inability to bring Lynch down at the line of scrimmage was the key moment of that run. "It was a heckuva run. But it was a lot more bad tackling on our part. And I think more than anything, that run just kind of put in one play the day that we kind of had.

"To me, we were the better team going up there, and we just got behind and made a lot of mistakes. We still had a chance to win at the end but just didn't make the play when it counted."

Just about everybody outside of the Seahawks' locker room thought the Saints entered the day as the better team. The Seahawks sneaked into the playoffs with a 7-9 record, making them the first division winner in NFL history with a losing record. And the 11-5 Saints were just coming off a Super Bowl win the year before.

"No one expected us to win," said longtime Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, now a backup for the Indianapolis Colts. "They were the defending world champs. We were 7-9, won the division, and everyone was talking about how we didn't deserve to be in the playoffs."

Former Seahawks tight end John Carlson, now with the Minnesota Vikings: "Everyone thought we were going to get blown out. But we kind of went blow-for-blow with them. We were scoring a lot of points."

Former Seahawks right guard Mike Gibson, now with the Arizona Cardinals: "The Saints, they really believed that they were going to come back in that game. For us, putting that game away was -- I wouldn't say shocking, because we knew we could beat them, but it was something that we had to do.

"I specifically remember [Saints middle linebacker] Jonathan Vilma running his mouth and saying that 'You guys aren't going to do it,' with some other vulgarities. We're just mouthing off back and forth, and I said, 'Just wait.'"

Hasselbeck caught fire in what turned out to be the last home game of his memorable 10-year tenure in Seattle. He torched the Saints' secondary with a series of deep passes, leading his team to a stunning 34-20 lead.

Then the Saints rallied, closing the gap to 34-30. After the teams traded punts, the Seattle offense took the field with a little more than four minutes to play, hoping to run out the clock.

Gibson was one of several Seahawks who said he was surprised by the play call -- 17 Power -- that came on second-and-10 from Seattle's own 33-yard line. The Seahawks based their run game on zone-blocking schemes that season. But this particular play called for straight-ahead, man-on-man blocking.

Former Seahawks right tackle Sean Locklear, now with the Atlanta Falcons, said of the play: "We didn't really call [it] that much. I don't even think it was in the game plan. We were kind of in the four-minute mode, just trying to run down the clock because, obviously, we didn't want their offense on the field because we knew what they could do."

Former Saints strongside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, now with the St. Louis Rams: "I remember the play. I remember where they were on the field. I remember everything. I wasn't able to get my hands on [Lynch], but I remember we had a strongside blitz on. I came down from the strongside blitz, and the guy came around and he just made a lot of guys miss and made a really big play. I remember it like it was yesterday."

Most of the initial action occurred on that strong side of the formation -- the Seahawks' left side.

Carlson lined up as an extra blocker on the left. Seahawks receiver Ben Obomanu motioned from the right side to the left before the snap, then blocked Saints blitzing safety Roman Harper, who stayed wide to set the edge and prevent Lynch from kicking the run out to that side. Meanwhile, Dunbar was negated by a double-team from Carlson and Gibson, who had pulled across the line from the right guard spot.

Fullback Michael Robinson took Vilma out of the play with a beautifully executed block on that same side of the field. Lynch potentially could have followed Robinson and found an opening. Instead, he chose to turn slightly to his right -- and directly into the Saints' weakside linebacker, Shanle, at the line of scrimmage.

Shanle was in perfect position to make the tackle, but Lynch bounced right off him after their shoulder pads collided. Lynch slipped free to the right side of Shanle and into open space.

Shanle: "I think it was a power play, and we just scraped over the top. And he made a move at the last second to go backdoor, which was kind of odd, because usually on the power play, they either keep it right in that A-gap or they bounce it outside to the front. And he took it to the back side. And once he did that, the whole thing just kind of broke down. He made a nice cut, and we didn't have anybody back there."

Sharper: "When they handed it off, it looked like an off-tackle, like a lead play. Our linebacker Scott Shanle hits him right at the line of scrimmage, and we all tried to kind of get to the ball to get him down."

That was a key part of the Saints' breakdown. Because it looked like Lynch was being wrapped up at the line of scrimmage, most of the Saints' defenders started to converge toward Lynch from the side -- as though they were going to join a pileup. Instead, they all wound up overpursuing.

Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis ran around the pile to assist on the tackle, but he went around Shanle's right side while Lynch was emerging from the other side. Defensive end Will Smith pulled away from a block by Okung at the line and just missed as he dove for Lynch's legs. Defensive tackle Remi Ayodele tried to rally back to the play after being double-teamed by Polumbus and center Chris Spencer but took too shallow of an angle as he, too, dove at Lynch's legs and failed to get a grip.

Locklear, who was in charge of blocking Saints end Alex Brown on the opposite side of the action: "I'm on the back side just sealing off the end. I didn't even do much, obviously. Nobody really did much past the line of scrimmage."

There was one more key block to be made a few yards up the field. Spencer saw Sharper running in from the deep safety position and got in his way just enough so that Sharper had to try to tackle Lynch from the side as he ran by.

Spencer, who is now with the Tennessee Titans: "I get a piece of him, and Marshawn did the rest of it."

Sharper: "How does [a center] get up on a safety, I don't know. I got an arm on [Lynch], but it wasn't enough. Then he proceeded to throw everybody in our secondary out of the way."

It was from that point on that Lynch's run really took on its legendary status.

Lynch, now more than 10 yards into his run, hit the open field with a full head of steam. And the only two Saints with any shot of catching him at that point -- cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Porter -- had also overpursued on the play when they thought Lynch was being wrapped up at the line of scrimmage. So now they had to try to catch Lynch from behind.

That's when they both made the ill-fated mistake of trying to tackle Lynch up high, desperately hoping they could strip the ball from him while making the tackle.

That was my most vivid personal memory of the run from my vantage point in the press box: watching those last futile attempts by Greer and Porter to reverse the damage that was being inflicted on them -- while they were only making things worse in the process.

Even if they had aimed for Lynch's waist or his legs, neither of the smaller cornerbacks probably would have been able to stop him in the open field. But by aiming high, they became immortalized.

Spencer: "I definitely had a good vantage point on it, [Lynch] tossing people and me still running behind him, thinking, 'This is crazy. These are people who play in the league, and he's tossing them around like that.'"

First was Greer, who got both arms around Lynch's torso near midfield, with one hand sweeping across the ball. But Greer slipped off Lynch as though he were coated in butter.

Then came Porter, who tried to get close enough to punch at the ball. Instead, he got decked by Lynch with a powerful stiff-arm that knocked Porter on his butt and immediately became Lynch's signature Beast Mode moment.

Porter, who is now with the Oakland Raiders: "I don't want to talk about it. It was a great run. They won, we lost. But the next week they lost, and they were at home just like us."

Porter had been a Super Bowl hero the year before when he picked off Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIV and returned the interception 74 yards for a touchdown. Eleven months later, he was playing a starring role in someone else's highlight reel.

Gibson: "I heard the crowd, and I was like, 'Man, what are they cheering about?' Then I hit another person. [Then] 'Oh my God,' and I look up and Marshawn is just going. And the next thing I see is I see him absolutely toss that dude. I don't know who it is, but he absolutely threw that guy."

Even Dr. John Vidale, the University of Washington professor who verified the seismic data underneath the field, took a shot at Porter.

Vidale: "I can't help but wonder if that enormous volume helped immobilize some of those defensive players. They looked kind of stunned when [Lynch] was running, especially that guy Porter that he knocked over. Maybe he was half knocked down by the sound and vibrations before Marshawn got there."

Shanle: "I think once he had the first down, it was pretty much a done deal. So if I'm a DB, I'm doing the same thing. I mean, Tracy gets a lot of heat for getting stiff-armed or whatever. But Tracy did the right thing as far as going after the ball. Because if you don't get the ball out of his hands, the game's over anyway."

The ball didn't come out. And the game was essentially over.

After Lynch's knockout blow against Porter, Saints defenders Brown, Greer and Harper were still in pursuit. But no one got a clean shot while a handful of Seahawks blockers -- including Hasselbeck -- continued to direct some traffic down the field.

Spencer: "I'm just chasing the play, seeing if I can get another guy. The whole time I'm behind him. I see, I think it was Tyler Polumbus, running down the sideline, trying to get in on a block. I see Hasselbeck coming around, trying to get in on a block. Next thing I see Marshawn diving in the end zone and the place just erupted, went crazy. I never heard that place get so loud."

Hasselbeck's attempted block wasn't pretty, but at least he was doing something. Saints quarterback Drew Brees -- who would throw a late TD pass to make the game interesting before a failed onside kick attempt -- could only watch helplessly from the sideline.

Brees: "[I remember thinking] 'Somebody please tackle him so we can have a chance to win this game.' That was an unbelievable run. Will probably go down in history as one of the better runs, especially in the playoffs."

Robinson: "Honestly, we blocked it totally wrong. It was a [17] Power, but there were like five unblocked guys, not that it mattered. It just worked. Look, I was born in '83, but that was the greatest run I've seen in my lifetime."

Harper: "It just is what it is. You can always say you were there. That's probably the only good thing about it. I don't know how many 8-8 teams [actually 7-9] go on and win in the playoffs, and that's another thing, too, that we were a part of. But you live and you learn, man, and we learn from these things."

Hasselbeck: "It was really cool. I can remember [Lynch] did his end zone thing. We're all celebrating, I'm pointing up at my family. We just won this game. I remember taking a break from celebrating and going and picking up the ball and giving it back to him."

Sharper was less than enthralled by Lynch's celebration.

Sharper: "Then the earth started to quake and the ground erupted. And he goes into the end zone backward and grabs his crotch for everybody to see."

Whether or not Lynch's hand placement was intentional, the celebration was certainly an emphatic exclamation point. He dove into the end zone backward like an uninhibited child leaping into a swimming pool, landing on his back and into a reverse somersault.

Lynch: "That was the stamp on the statement. With all of that [expletive], you've gotta finish it off somehow."

The run obviously meant a lot to Lynch -- more than anyone shaking the earth that day could have realized at the time.

Although Lynch rarely speaks with the media, he opened up to Jeffri Chadiha of "E:60" about why he believes that run was "symbolic" of a life that began with a difficult upbringing in a rough part of Oakland, Calif., and has included trouble with the law throughout his pro career.

Lynch: "Growing up being where I'm from, a lot of people don't see the light. I didn't see the light in that play.

"I went forward, ran into some trouble, being on food stamps, living in the projects. Running headfirst into linebackers.

"I started to play football, things opened up for me a little bit. Breaking a couple more tackles.

"Going to jail, getting into trouble, comin' out of that.

"Touchdown."

Terry Blount, Ben Goessling, Paul Gutierrez, John Keim, Paul Kuharsky, Vaughn McClure, Nick Wagoner, Josh Weinfuss and Mike Wells of ESPN's NFL Nation contributed to this feature.

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