By Jeremy Hritz
It’s hard to believe that the 2012 Steelers season is upon us, and that in a week’s time, we will be gathered in front of televisions across the world watching the Pittsburgh Steelers square off against not only a team that bounced them from the playoffs last season, but also a quarterback that will go down in NFL history as one of the all-time greats. Undoubtedly, the anticipation for next Sunday night against the Broncos has reached its peak, and now the speculation and prognostication will give way to actual meaningful play on the field.
Overshadowing the addition of Todd Haley as the new offensive coordinator, Mike Wallace’s holdout, and the rash of injured Steelers will be the reappearance of Peyton Manning on the NFL stage, a prime time one at that. Back in March, the Broncos announced the signing of the much revered Manning, and immediately, the expectations for the Broncos in the 2012 season skyrocketed, and anything less than an MVP trophy for Manning and a Super Bowl for the Broncos will be disappointing. Broncos fans last season were pleased with the achievements of their team behind the passing-challenged Tim Tebow, despite their trouncing at the hands of the New England Patriots in the divisional round. Now, with an adroit signal caller at the team’s helm, the optimism is remarkable. This past training camp, Manning’s stroll onto the practice field was met with uproarious applause and cheers from attending fans. When the Steelers and Broncos line up next Sunday, all eyes, and the accompanying pressure, will be on Manning.
Could this prove to be an advantage for the Steelers?
All week long leading up to the game, the focus will be on Manning’s return to regular season play. And while Manning will say all of the right things when interviewed, the fact is the pressure that will be on him will be immense. Manning is out to prove that the Colts made a tragic error in parting ways. Couple that with the bright lights of Sunday night and the possibly unrealistic expectations of the Broncos faithful, and the product could be more frazzle than dazzle. It is also worth reminding that this is the same Manning who traditionally struggled when the pressure was on, as evidenced by his battles with the Patriots and his last Super Bowl appearance against the Saints.
Everything could be playing right into the hands of the Steelers, who will be underestimated based on their loss to the Broncos last season and the misnomer that they are an old team. The pundits will argue that Manning will be able to exploit the Steelers secondary which showed that they could not stop the Tebow-led passing game last year. However, Steelers fans know that the greatest concern will be the team’s ability to protect Ben Roethlisberger, as Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen should provide a boost to the secondary.
Historically, the Steelers are 2-2 against Manning, surrendering 1079 passing yards and seven touchdowns, while also collecting four interceptions and holding the legendary QB to a 59.6% completion percentage. No Steelers victory against Manning is more memorable than the 2005 playoff game in which the defense, led by Joey Porter, harassed and battered him en route to a victory capped by Roethlisberger’s shoe-string tackle. One thing is for certain, the Manning that the Steelers face this Sunday will not be that same Manning from 2005. This is a quarterback who missed an entire season with a neck injury that raised questions as to whether or not he would play again. This is also a quarterback who has struggled at times this preseason throwing the football down the field.
Maybe Manning will shine and light the Steelers and the scoreboard up as he returns to form in his 2012 season debut. Or maybe he will implode and spectators will witness the decline of a hero. Whatever the outcome, the pressure is on Peyton.
And we are all waiting to see how he responds.