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Steelers' results mixed versus Manning

| Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, 8:44 p.m.
Steelers Joey Porter sacks Colts quarterback Peyton Manning late in the game during the AFC Divisional Playoff game at the RCA Dome Jan. 15, 2006. The Steelers beat the Colts, 21-18, and went on to win their fifth Super Bowl. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) passes against the San Francisco 49ers during the first quarter of a preseason game in Denver. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning leaves the field after beating the Steelers, 24-20, on Nov. 9, 2008. (AP file)

Maybe he lacks the game-polished rapport with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker he long had with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Maybe he will be rusty after not playing for 20 months, or not feel as comfortable in orange and dark blue as he did all those years in light blue and white.

Maybe he won't be the Peyton Manning the Steelers remember from four years ago, when he beat them on their home field three months before they won the Super Bowl. Or the Manning who nearly engineered one of the great last-quarter comebacks in NFL playoff history against them after the 2005 season, only to fail at the end.

But maybe he will be, and that is the Steelers' biggest worry as they prepare for a highly anticipated Sunday night opener in Denver — one that may attract one of the largest regular-season TV audiences in NFL history.

“There's only one Peyton Manning,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said.

Troy Polamalu has seen it all before — the frantic arm-waving at the line of scrimmage, the last-second checkoffs, the on-the-numbers passes, the methodical coolness of a man clearly in charge — and he knows what the Steelers are facing.

“You're talking about probably the greatest player, the smartest player to ever play the game,” said Polamalu, who contradicts Patriots owner Robert Kraft's contention that Tom Brady is the best ever.

The Steelers have had success in the limited times they've opposed Manning; they are 2-2 against him, counting that 2005 season playoff game in which they upset a Colts team that started the season 13-0. (By comparison, he's faced the Patriots 16 times.)

In the regular season, Manning is 2-1 against the Steelers, completing 68 of 113 passes for 789 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions with an 84.3 passer rating and has been sacked six times.

Of course, all those games were with the Colts — Manning, the 36-year-old Broncos version coming off a season he didn't play because of a neck injury, remains a great unknown.

Even if Clark is certain what the Steelers will get from a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback who has had a record 11 4,000-yard seasons.

“There's only one guy who does as much hand motioning and talking as he does,” Clark said. “That's just him, that's what you get when you get Peyton Manning. He wasn't going to go to Denver and stop doing it.”

Mike McCoy is the Broncos offensive coordinator, but Clark is convinced Manning — a four-time NFL MVP — effectively coordinates his own offense.

“When you get Peyton Manning, you get a package,” Clark said. “Peyton Manning's not a cookie-cutter quarterback where you say, ‘This is what I run, this is what I coach, you come here and do what I tell you to do.' When you get Peyton Manning, you get the whole thing. When you get Peyton Manning, you bring in what Peyton Manning wants to run.”

In Indianapolis, Manning and his receivers could almost read each other's minds, so comfortable were they together. Manning has never played a real game with Decker, Thomas and Andre Caldwell catching his passes, adjusting to his nuances, deciphering all of his line-of-scrimmage histrionics.

The instant recognition of what Manning plans to do, the unspoken communication between the man who throws the ball and the man who catches it, may be missing at first.

“He has a good feel for where blitzes might be coming from and where to get the ball out, and he's as smart a quarterback as they come,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “Those guys were together for a long time in Indy, and it does take time to get that rapport, but he's been working with these (Broncos) guys for a long time now.”

Manning's release is so quick, his timing so innate, that he often dodges the sacks and pressure that can rattle another quarterback. At least that was Manning, circa 2010 and before.

The Steelers at times defended against Manning by not giving him a good look at their alignment until just before the snap. The danger in that, Keisel said, is that Manning can run a quick-count play out of the no-huddle offense against a defense that's not aligned.

“It's a different level of preparation,” Polamalu said of opposing a Manning or a Brady. “But the truth is — and I don't mean it's easier — but you know what you're going to get. They're going to make plays. A rookie quarterback, a so-so quarterback, you go in hanging your hat on some plays. A quarterback like him, you can't gamble, you can't make mistakes.”

You can't let him be Peyton Manning.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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