Save the skepticism on Peyton Manning’s health for somebody else. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t want to hear it.
”He needs no endorsement from me,” Tomlin said. ”His résumé is his résumé.”
One that includes four MVPs, a Super Bowl ring and a series of neck operations that robbed Manning of the 2011 season. The injury also led to his stunning departure from Indianapolis and more than a hint of curiosity on how he’s going to look when the Denver Broncos host the Steelers in the season opener on Sunday night.
Heck, even the Steelers understand why the NFL scheduling folks wanted to give Denver such a high-profile slot during the league’s opening weekend.
”It was a no-brainer that they were going to put Peyton’s first game back on a Sunday night or a Monday night, one of the two, and let him play at home,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. ”And they’ll let us come back to (Denver), I guess.”
It’s only been nine months since the Broncos and Tim Tebow stunned the Steelers in overtime in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, but this is a rematch in name only. It’s more like a coming-out party for Manning, who will wear something other than Colts’ speed blue and white for the first time in the regular season.
The sight of Manning’s No. 18 in orange-and-blue will certainly be strange. Once he takes a snap, however, the Steelers expect to see the same old Peyton.
”Guys like him make their reputations in rising up in moments like this,” Tomlin said. ”He has battled some adversity with injury and being in a new city. We should anticipate his very best. That’s what guys like Manning do.”
Even if Manning hasn’t always done it against the Steelers. He’s just 2-2 facing Pittsburgh in his career, the most famous meeting an upset loss to the Steelers in the 2005 playoffs that ended with Mike Vanderjagt shanking a game-tying field goal attempt in the final moments.
Manning’s numbers against Pittsburgh are as solid as you’d expect — 90 of 151 for 1,079 yards and seven touchdowns against four interceptions — and so is his 85.9 rating. Except, of course, when compared to his career rating of 94.9.
The Steelers insist there is no secret formula, and their goal is to merely make the normally unflappable Manning as uncomfortable as possible. They may have gotten some good news on Tuesday, when Tomlin didn’t rule out linebacker James Harrison (knee) or Jason Worilds (wrist) from playing. Safety Ryan Clark is out due to a sickle cell trait that affects him at higher elevations though nose tackle Casey Hampton should be ready to play.
Tomlin knows a veteran presence will be needed to slow Manning down even if he’s making his first start in 20 months.
”He has a ridiculous football character, he’s smart,” Tomlin said. ”He works at it. He is a ridiculous competitor.”
And Pittsburgh understands that doesn’t change regardless of the color of jersey on Manning’s back. Though it took Manning a couple of games to get going in the preseason, he looked very much like the player who made Indianapolis a Super Bowl contender for over a decade during a victory over San Francisco two weeks ago.
Standing in the shotgun, barking orders in the shorthand that’s become one of his trademarks, Manning put together three tidy scoring drives against San Francisco’s first string. He completed 10 of 12 passes for 122 yards and a score, a statistical line that looks awfully familiar to Tomlin.
”Anything he’s involved in resembles other things he’s involved in because they’re usually successful,” Tomlin said. ”He’s very efficient, he reads pass patterns and route distribution combinations very quickly, he challenges the defense with some of the things he does pre-snap. It looks very familiar but I expected it to because Peyton is Peyton.”
While most of the hype will surround Manning’s return, Tomlin points out the Broncos were hardly pushovers the last time the Steelers saw them. Denver brought Pittsburgh’s season to an abrupt halt on the first play of overtime when Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime.
It’s a loss that’s stuck with some of the Steelers for months, particularly cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Ryan Mundy, who fruitlessly chased Thomas to the end zone.
Mundy will likely get the start again with Clark being held out as a precaution. The longtime centerfielder in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense will take on a pseudo coaching role during the game and is even using his absence to raise awareness for his condition. Clark launched ”The Cure League” on Tuesday, a joint effort with a Pittsburgh hospital to help raise awareness, donations and support for the inherited blood disorder that cost Clark his spleen when it flared up while playing in Denver’s high elevation five years ago.
Tomlin praised Clark for turning his unique circumstances into a positive. They’ll welcome him back on the field against the Jets in Week 2, but they’re not lamenting his absence in the opener.
”Like anyone else that misses time, we don’t cry a whole lot about people that are out,” Tomlin said. ”We expect those expected to play to play in an above the line manner.”