An auspicious beginning

There’s a scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Butch and Sundance are auditioning for jobs as stagecoach guards. Percy Garris, played by Strother Martin, asks if Sundance can hit anything with his six shooter.

“Sometimes,” Sundance says. “Can I move?”

“What the hell ya mean, move?” Martin asks.

Standing still, Sundance hits nothing. Martin is about to give up on him when Sundance moves as he might in a gunfight and destroys the target.

“I’m better when I move.” he says.

Which brings us to Peyton Manning and the no-huddle offense. Early in Sunday night’s game, the Broncos ran a traditional offense, huddling up between plays. They did OK, too, earning two first downs before they were forced to punt.

But it was in the no-huddle, the scheme Manning mastered in Indianapolis, that they began gashing Pittsburgh’s able defense in the second quarter. Here’s what Tony Dungy, Manning’s former coach with the Colts, posted on Twitter after the game:

“Once Broncos went to no huddle Peyton Manning led them to 3 TDs and a FG. I am so happy for him. A lot of hard work went into his comeback.”

Manning agreed, at least with the first part.

“I think it made a difference,” he said. “I think it did sort of give our offense a little boost. I can’t speak to (the Steelers), just how they felt about it, whether it fatigued them or not. I don’t know that. But it did give our offense a little boost where we got into a little rhythm.”

For those who doubted whether Manning could resemble his younger self at age 36 after multiple neck surgeries and a full year off, check out these numbers from his first game back:

He completed 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 129.2.

For the sake of comparison, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 22 of 40 for 245 yards, two touchdowns, a comeback-killing interception and a passer rating of 79.7.

As good as Roethlisberger was, and he was, Manning was equally productive, more efficient and less mistake-prone.

“He’s Peyton,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

“He’s a great player,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “A lot’s been made of the injury and those types of things, but we’re just glad he’s on our team.”

The atmosphere at Mile High for Manning’s Broncos debut was like that of a legendary actor opening in a new play on Broadway. The sense of anticipation, that the stadium was the place to be, came with the early-arriving crowd.

The Broncos’ return to orange as their primary uniform color gave it a visual theme. The stadium was a sea of orange. The Steelers travel so well that normally there are significant patches of yellow and black whenever they come to town. Evidently, Broncos season ticket holders were less willing to sell their tickets this time. The yellow towels that flew when the Steelers made big plays were more isolated than usual, threatening to drown in that ocean of orange.

The Broncos reported the fourth-highest attendance in franchise history — 76,823 — with 181 no-shows instead of the usual 3,000 or 4,000. If executive vice president of football operations John Elway has really made the club competitive for the first time since he was executive vice president of throwing the football, well, the Broncos may again be the toughest ticket in town.

“What an awesome atmosphere, playing in prime time and the fans were rocking,” Manning said.

The game had an odd rhythm, chiefly because for a long stretch in the middle, Manning and the offense couldn’t get on the field. In the third quarter, Pittsburgh possessed the ball for 14 minutes and 24 seconds, leaving Manning the other 36 seconds.

Of course, this was in part because Manning and the offense traversed 80 yards in two plays during those 36 seconds, including the night’s signature play, a screen pass that wide receiver Demaryius Thomas turned into a 71-yard touchdown.

For the Steelers, this had to be a nightmarish flashback. The last time they played a game that counted, it was a playoff game at Mile High in which the final scene was Thomas running toward the south end zone with the game-winning touchdown in overtime. This touchdown wasn’t quite as decisive, but their view of Thomas was exactly the same.

When I asked afterward if Manning had checked out of another play and into that one, he declined to answer, so I’m going to take that as a yes. We are only just beginning to learn the Manning Rules — what he’ll discuss and what he won’t — but an audible in the no-huddle is very common. It looked like he got to the line of scrimmage, saw the corner backing off Thomas and took advantage. If that’s true, it’s more evidence that in signing him as a free agent, the Broncos acquired as much a mental weapon as a physical one.

Interestingly, he had no problem explaining the tactical considerations that made the play an option.

“We were running the ball on a similar formation in the first half and they kept blitzing off the back side, so it was kind of a halftime adjustment,” he said.

“We thought we could fake that run to the strong side and throw him a screen, thought we’d have a chance for a big play. We weren’t thinking an 80-yard touchdown, maybe a nine-yard gain was kind of what I was thinking. So it sure was a nice surprise. Some really good blocking on that play. Zane (Beadles) got a good block, (Ryan) Clady. I know Matt Willis came all the way from the back side and got the safety and of course Demaryius did the majority of the work. Really turned it on with great speed. Just a huge play.”

Thomas, by the way, joined Eric Decker and Jacob Tamme as Manning’s leading receivers on the night, each catching five balls. Veteran Brandon Stokley caught two and Willis and Joel Dreessen caught one each.

The big play to Thomas gave the Broncos a 14-13 lead, which lasted 6 minutes and 18 seconds, the length of the Steelers’ subsequent possession. For a moment, the Broncos seemed to have forced the visitors into a three-and-out — a welcome achievement considering Pittsburgh’s previous possession lasted 8 minutes, 55 seconds — but when safety Rahim Moore was called for a personal foul on the Steelers’ failed third-down play, it gave Roethlisberger new life and he took full advantage.

When Big Ben hit wide receiver Mike Wallace with a short slant in the first minute of the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh went ahead 19-14, missing a two-point try that would have made it 21.

Now in a groove, Manning brought the Broncos right back. He hit Tamme, like Stokley a former teammate with the Colts, with his second touchdown pass — a one-yard flip on an unusual Peyton Manning rollout to his left. He hit running back Willis McGahee with another short throw for a two-point conversion that made it 22-19.

Jack Del Rio’s defense finally forced Roethlisberger into a three-and-out and Manning responded with his fourth consecutive scoring drive, not counting a kneel-down to end the first half.

When cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted Roethlisberger on the ensuing series and returned it 43 yards up the right sideline for a touchdown, the Broadway opening morphed into an outdoor party on a summer night.

It was not entirely Manning’s doing, of course. For all the frustration produced by the Steelers’ time of possession — it was 35:05 to 24:55 for the game — the Broncos’ revamped defense held them to 19 points and got the big turnover at the end. Cornerback Tracy Porter, who got the pick six, was Elway’s second-most important offseason free-agent pickup.

“They were good defensively,” Roethlisberger said. “They disguised very well. We were on the sideline talking about half the time we didn’t know what coverage they were going to.”

It might not surprise you to learn that the Steelers have had about enough of Mile High for a while.

“It’s a great place, great environment, great fans and good team,” Roethlisberger said. “I’d like to say I hope we come back here, but I hope we don’t. I hope they come back to our place because it’s a nice advantage.”

For one thing, safety Ryan Clark would be able to play then. The Steelers’ starting free safety can’t play at altitude because of a medical condition. Pittsburgh was also missing its best pass rusher, linebacker James Harrison, and its starting running back, Rashard Mendenhall.

As Manning pointed out, it’s only one game. The Broncos have an even bigger challenge in Week 2, traveling to Atlanta to play the Falcons, who beat the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sunday, 40-24.

Still, the curtain was raised at home in fine fashion. The touchdown pass to Thomas was Manning’s 400th in the NFL. (The pass to Tamme was No. 401.) Only Brett Favre (508) and Dan Marino (420) have thrown more. And Manning, clearly, isn’t done.

“There’s a lot of people that participated in that process, a lot of receivers on different teams throughout the years,” he said of the milestone.

“I’m grateful for their help. I guess you call it an individual record, but I kind of accept it on behalf of many great teammates and coaches. Dan Marino and Brett Favre are two of my favorite players of all time, two of the best quarterbacks of all time. I don’t really feel comfortable being in that company, but to be mentioned amongst them, it’s truly humbling and quite an honor and it’s not one that I take lightly.”

For the rest of the league, here’s the scary part: Manning still doesn’t think he’s all the way back.

“I’m still feeling my way out,” he said. “I still have some limitations. I think this team is still forming its identity. As you’re feeling yourself out and feeling the team out, when you can get a win in that process, that’s a nice thing. We’ve got an extremely tough schedule going on the road to Atlanta. It will be nice to go in there 1-0 as opposed to 0-1, but it’s going to be a serious test next Monday.”

No doubt. But Manning’s debut demonstrated the wisdom of the Broncos’ courtship last winter. For the first time since Elway retired almost 14 years ago, the Broncos have an elite quarterback, a field general who can take them as far as his teammates are ready to go.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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