Larry Foote wasn’t on the field for the last Steelers snap that mattered. So there was nothing he could do about the 80-yard catch and run by Demaryius Thomas that ended the Steelers’ season in Denver.
Foote said he didn’t wake up to that fact until he was on the plane heading home.
“Then it’s ‘What the heck just happened?’” said the Steelers’ inside linebacker. “And the trainers start going up and down the aisle talking about exit physicals. That’s when you knew it was real and the season was over.”
The Steelers head back to Denver to open the 2012 season, but there will be one big difference: Peyton Manning will be playing quarterback for the Broncos and not Tim Tebow.
Surely the Steelers would rather face Tebow, now a backup with the New York Jets, wouldn’t they?
“As a competitor I want Peyton Manning,” Foote said. “Everybody in the world’s going to be watching. You get a big stage to show your talent. As a competitor you want to play Peyton.”
That’ll require a bit of a different defensive game plan from the wildcatting Tebow – a radically different game plan.
“Night and day,” said Troy Polamalu with a laugh.
Polamalu laughed because the answer is that obvious.
Even though Manning is 36 and just-recovered from a neck injury that forced him to miss the 2011 season, the Steelers are expecting the same Manning who quarterbacked four games against them while he was with the Indianapolis Colts.
The Steelers are 2-2 against the future Hall of Famer, including an upset win in the 2005 AFC playoffs on their way to winning Super Bowl XL.
Manning has a passer rating of 85.9 against the Steelers, nine points below his career rating. He was a bit better than that in the playoff game (90.9) but the Steelers sacked him five times. James Farrior had 2½ sacks and Joey Porter had 1½.
“There was constant pressure up the middle, on the edges,” said Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. “That’s what it takes to beat great quarterbacks. You’ve got to constantly pressure them and constantly let them know you’re coming.”
The Steelers must do so tonight without their best pass-rusher, James Harrison. He’ll be replaced by Chris Carter, a second-year pro who’ll make his first NFL start at right outside linebacker. Not that it will change the Steelers’ strategy.
“Our nature is we’re going to attack,” said Foote. “That’s just the nature of Pittsburgh and we’re going to definitely do that. But it is a chess match. A lot of offenses, to slow us down, they don’t send that many receivers out, so (defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau’s not going to keep hitting our head up against the wall. So we’ll play that game a little bit, but ultimately we’re going to bring pressure.”
In the past, Manning has beaten pressure with his brains and his quick release. And he does have a couple of his former receivers with him in Denver: slot receiver Brandon Stokely caught 5 passes for 56 yards this preseason and tight end Jacob Tamme caught 4 for 43.
The Denver starters are Thomas and Eric Decker, a pair of thick 6-foot-3 wide receivers, and former Houston Texans tight end Joel Dreesen.
A familiar face will be in the Denver backfield. Willis McGahee, the 235-pound tailback, has faced the Steelers 11 times in his career, but has yet to top the 79 yards he gained the first time in 2005. McGahee averages 3.3 yards per carry against the Steelers, but the Steelers have always respected his power and speed.
“They’re a good team,” Foote said. “I think their defense is getting overshadowed by Peyton Manning. I’m sure our offense knows they’ve got a lot of good players over there. On Wednesday, Mike Tomlin highlighted those guys, and they’ve got some guys on that defense who can play.”
The key Broncos to block are pass-rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller.
Dumervil has 4½ sacks in four games against the Steelers. The right defensive end made the Pro Bowl last season after missing the 2010 season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Miller, the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year with 11½ sacks, plays strong-side outside linebacker in the Broncos’ 4-3, but lines up as the end opposite Dumervil on passing downs.
Miller struggled with a thumb injury against the Steelers in the playoffs last season, but the two pass-rushers each sacked Ben Roethlisberger once. Robert Ayers sacked Roethlisberger twice as the Broncos got to him five times.
“They’re going to be a challenge for us,” said Steelers left tackle Max Starks. “You can focus on one and that’s when the other one gets off. That’s why the Steelers have been so successful because the second you try to isolate James, LaMarr (Woodley) is going to have a three-sack day. It’s a balancing act. The onus is on us as tackles to make sure we do our job and we keep our technique and we play sound, and also beat them up when we get the chance to be aggressive and more proactive instead of reactive. So in the run game we have to take advantage of those opportunities, and also do some different things passing.”
No doubt the Steelers would like to keep the 260-pound Dumervil and the 237-pound Miller out of the blocks and worrying about running backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer instead. Starks is optimistic that can happen.
“I think we have a good game plan to go against these guys,” he said. “And we’ll attack them instead of sitting back and waiting for those guys to come and force us to combat the rush. We have to bring the fight to them, play aggressively, and control the tempo.”
Taking the fight to them on offense and rushing the passer on defense. It was the Steelers’ prescription for the 2005 playoff win against Manning, the one that ended a whole lot better than the last one.