DENVER – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers clearly didn't view No. 96 in the Broncos goal line package as a threat to get out of the backfield as a receiver.
On first-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 1-yard line, the Broncos lined up defensive tackle Mitch Unrein as the fullback in their heavy package. But instead of clearing the way for an inside handoff as he did on a Willis McGahee touchdown run against New Orleans, Unrein slipped out into the flat, where he found exactly what he hoped for – open space.
"At first, I was like, 'I hope to God he doesn't cover me,'" Unrein said of his thoughts before the play. "If that guy would have turned around and covered me, (quarterback) Peyton (Manning) wouldn't have thrown it to me. Luckily, they thought it was run all the way and that guy came down really hard and I gave him a little chip and ran out in the flat."
For most players, being wide open in the end zone means a sure touchdown. For a 290-plus-pound defensive lineman, however, the hard part was seemingly yet to come.
"It's a lot harder than it looks – those wide receivers, that's pretty tough stuff," Unrein said. "There is a lot of pressure on you. It feels like that ball is coming really slow, especially for me."
"It felt like a really long time when that ball was floating toward me," Unrein continued. "I was like, 'Oh, just don't drop it, just don't drop it.' Luckily, it hit my hands and I caught it and wrapped it up with both hands. I kind of stood there for a second and I was like, 'Dang, I just scored a touchdown. That's pretty cool.'"
Though Unrein's touchdown grab certainly seemed to surprise the Bucs and perhaps even Unrein himself, it didn't catch any of his teammates off guard for even a second, as the play has been successfully executed in practice throughout the season.
"I knew he was going to catch it," defensive end Derek Wolfe said. "Peyton put that little soft touch on it and it fell right into his hands."
Clutching his first career touchdown reception on his first trip to the end zone since his freshman year of high school, Unrein found himself in a situation he never imagined.
"No, not in a million years," Unrein said of whether he ever expected to be a red zone target of Manning's. "I never even thought I'd be in the NFL in high school. It's been a great experience so far and hopefully I'll have many other opportunities to catch passes from him and to play for Denver."
Even after proving to have reliable hands in practice, getting the right look from the defense, and completing the all-important step of hanging on to the football, Unrein's work wasn't done.
He had some celebrating to do.
"Then I had no dance afterward, no skills like (linebacker) Von Miller," Unrein said. "It was a great experience."
"I have two left feet, as they say," Unrein laughed. "I can two-step a little bit, country dance, but it all happened so fast. I really didn't know what to do."
Fellow defensive linemen Elvis Dumervil said Unrein's 'Who, me?' response to the celebration was misleading.
"That's a lie," Dumervil smiled. "He's been practicing since practice."