Peyton Manning of old quickly proves that he's still got it
Pittsburgh linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote walked up to the line on a 2nd-and-7, showing blitz. Peyton Manning vacated his spot in the shotgun, walked up to his center, pointed to one of the defenders, then calmly returned to his position.
At the snap Timmons came crashing toward Manning, while Foote bluffed toward the line, then stopped. Manning, knowing what Pittsburgh was planning, waited two ticks and then floated a pass up the sideline and over the shoulder of his tight end, Jacob Tamme, for an 18-yard completion.
"I don't know how Peyton's neck is doing," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth quipped, "but his brain's doing just fine."
If this was Manning working off a little rust, then the rest of the league might be in trouble. In his first start since the 2010 season, Manning hit on 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, as the Broncos opened their season with a 31-19 win over the Steelers.
Minus Ryan Clark and James Harrison, Pittsburgh faced a tough task heading into a fired-up Mile High City on Sunday night. For a quarter, though, the Steelers appeared up to the challenge defensively, shutting out Manning with the help of some timely pressure.
Maybe the Broncos wanted to ease Manning back into the mix. Maybe they had a game plan that didn't work out. Whatever the explanation, the game changed when Denver threw caution to the wind and went all-out no-huddle in quarter No. 2.
After that, it was as close to vintage Manning as we could have expected to see in Week 1.
"It helped a lot," Manning said on NBC's postgame show of Denver's move to an up-tempo look. "I know we talked ... about how we were going to use the no-huddle as a change-up, but it went so well that the coaches said, 'Stay with it.'"
His first scoring drive as a Bronco came in that second quarter, after Pittsburgh had taken a 3-0 lead. Manning responded to that score by leading the Broncos on an 80-yard touchdown march, hitting 6 of 7 passes and even scrambling for seven yards and a first down on 2nd-and-6.
It would be nearly an hour until Manning took another game snap -- the Steelers closed out the half with a long touchdown drive, then opened the third quarter with a nine-minute possession that resulted in a field goal and a 13-7 lead.
Manning needed all of 39 seconds to get it back, hitting Demaryius Thomas on a short pass that turned into a 71-yard touchdown. Pittsburgh answered again to grab a 19-14 edge early in the fourth quarter, but there was no stopping Manning.
The Broncos wound up scoring 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter -- their only possession that didn't result in points was their final one, when Manning took a knee twice to salt the win.
Ben Roethlisberger did his best to propel the Steelers over the top in spite of Manning's effective return. In typical Roethlisberger fashion, he created plays out of absolutely nothing, keeping drives alive and putting points on the board. But, twice the Steelers came away with only field goals after driving deep into Denver territory. Then, late in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger did the one thing Manning did not: made a huge mistake.
Following a Matt Prater field goal that made it 25-19, Denver, Roethlisberger attempted to squeeze a pass in to Emmanuel Sanders along the sideline. New Bronco Tracy Porter, he of the interception off Manning that sealed Super Bowl XLIV for the Saints, jumped the route, picked off the throw and took it to the house to seal Denver's victory.
The road will not get any easier for Manning and his team. Next week, a trip to Atlanta looms, followed by a home date with Houston.
For the moment, however, all the questions about Manning have been answered. He took a bunch of hits from the Steelers' defense, especially early, and kept right on getting up. He made all the throws that he needed to, to all areas of the field.
And, most importantly of all, he showed he still has those qualities that make him Peyton Manning -- the ability to stay one step ahead of the defense, to pick out a weakness and exploit it.
It's easy to overreact to one week of football. Just ask Redskins fans, who are no doubt hailing Robert Griffin III as the second coming, or Green Bay fans, who might be lamenting their team's disappointing debut.
So, we still have plenty to learn about Manning and the Broncos.
"There's always a lot of unknown going into the first week," Manning said. "It was a very interesting game ... we're still trying to form our identity. ... It's just one game and you try to keep it in perspective. But I know how hard I've worked to get to this point. It definitely feels good, it's special." The football world waited a long time, through an entire NFL season and move from Indianapolis to Denver, to see Peyton Manning back on the field again. But while the uniform and his teammates may be different, we saw Sunday night that Manning has not changed. That could mean great things ahead for the Broncos.