Steelers know Broncos' Manning still a threat despite age, injuries

Chris Adamski
| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, 7:33 p.m.

He's nine weeks from his 40th birthday, just about the same number of weeks since he last started a football game — one in which he was benched for his ineffectiveness.

He has had injuries to his shoulder, rib cage and left foot this season. It has been a campaign that is the worst, statistically, of his career.

“You know what, though?” Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “He's still Peyton Manning.”

And Manning — the future Hall of Famer, the five-time MVP and 10-time first- or second-team All Pro — is the imposing face of the Denver Broncos team that stands between the Steelers and an AFC championship game berth Sunday.

This Manning isn't the one from a decade ago or even the vintage of just two years back, when he set the NFL regular-season record for touchdown passes.

There's even doubt Manning remains the best quarterback on his own team. Brock Osweiler went 5-2 as a starter with a career-high three touchdown passes against the Steelers in December at Heinz Field.

But make no mistake: With three defensive starters who weren't even out of kindergarten when Manning was throwing the first of his NFL-record 539 touchdown passes 17½ years ago, the Steelers insist they still respect him.

“As long as his mind is still working,” safety Will Allen said, “he's the same guy. I don't care what they say about his arm or his foot.”

What “they” are saying is that Manning's arm can't produce the velocity it once did and that his foot doesn't allow him to move adequately in the pocket anymore.

Can't the Steelers take comfort in that?

“If he was your average 40-year-old, I'm sure,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. “But it's Peyton Manning we're talking about.

“We have to respect him. We can't give him the same look over and over, because he'll just pick you apart. He's not moving the same — he has the foot injury. But he's still Peyton Manning as far as his pre-snap and getting guys in the right call. You can just see how he is able to keep that offense going.”

Long before he became the NFL's third-oldest player, Manning had a reputation for being cerebral. Like any player at any position, experience only aids that. And Manning has 290 NFL games worth of experience to fall back on.

“He's a coach playing football. It's like trying to compete against another coach out there,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “He's seen everything. We're not going to fool him on anything that we do. ... You're going to try to do some different things, but you're not going to fool him.”

That's in stark contrast to the most recent time the Steelers played Denver.

Facing the 6-foot-7 Osweiler, the Steelers made halftime adjustments and were able to confuse the 25-year-old.

As a result, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes, including only 7 of 26 in the second half.

This version of Manning might not have the arm strength that Osweiler has, but he isn't going to be as susceptible to scheming and confusing game plans, either.

“You are not going to outsmart Peyton Manning,” Steelers safety Robert Golden said. “He has attacked pretty much every defense that you can check out of and check into.”

Manning's propensity for calling audibles at the line of scrimmage is legendary enough that commercials have been made about it.

As Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake put it, “He pretty much is calling the plays for their offense.”

That includes running plays, and it's there that Manning is most dangerous.

“He's going to look for the right plays and see where we don't have enough defenders and where they have more blockers,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “He could put in a completely different play, just to put them in the right position.”

Said Blake: “Any time you are seeing a guy like that — and he's definitely one of the smartest guys in the league — you have to run your antennas up for what could possibly be coming.”

Butler warned against falling for Manning's “dummy” audibles — instances in which Manning barks out fake commands and acts out various gyrations and finger points in an attempt to make the defense think he's changing a play.

Besides, there comes a point where adjusting to the adjustment of the opponent — even one as respected as Manning — becomes overkill, particularly for a member of the secondary who is more preoccupied with individual matchups.

Forget, also, today's Manning making many concessions because of age.

“I think he still likes to do the things that he wants to do,” Butler said.

Butler thinks the ineffectiveness that plagued Manning at times this season was more the result of injury: The drop in arm strength was manifested by the rib and shoulder ailments, and the partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot created difficulties in planting during throws and in stepping up in a collapsing pocket.

“It's been harder (battling through injury this season) for him to get the ball down field,” Butler said. “When he can step up and throw the ball, he's just as effective as he always is.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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