PITTSBURGH -- The NFL's great scavenger hunt for wayward identities kicks off Sunday night in Denver. Peyton Manning won't be alone in seeking to reclaim his illustrious self. When the schedule-makers matched the Steelers and the Broncos in this season-opener, they turned Mile High Stadium into one big Lost and Found.
A slab of Pittsburgh pride lies somewhere underneath the turf, where it received an undignified burial eight months ago. If anyone doubts that the Steelers' playoff defeat in Denver still rankles, one coach's harsh assessment of the winning play -- an 80-yard Tim Tebow throw that pantsed the top-ranked defense in the NFL -- serves as sufficient rebuttal.
“I doubt if we'd be in that particular defense again, because the coordinator didn't call a very damn good defense,” said Dick LeBeau, the coordinator who made that call.
The league could have arranged a gentler opener for Manning, perhaps a divisional game that might have kept the emotional effect of his comeback off the Richter scale. Instead, he got the Steelers, his defensive doppelgängers. They, too, have to confront questions about age and injury, and whether they will remain one of the great forces in football.
James Harrison, by himself, could double the drama of Manning's return from spinal fusion in his neck. The quarterback acknowledged as much in training camp with playful references to the Steelers’ linebacker, whose illicit-tackle fines could cover tuition at a four-year college.
After telling ESPN's Tom Jackson that he felt confident about his neck withstanding an NFL collision, Manning said, “I'm not begging James Harrison to blindside me by any means.”
Then he followed up with: “So James, I love you and don't take this as a challenge now. Go easy on me if you can.”
Harrison might not have much of a choice -- he had minor knee surgery three weeks ago, and missed Thursday's practice. The Pittsburgh pass rush could still be formidable, but Manning takes sacks at a remarkably low rate, or at least the Manning of Indianapolis did.
Some defensive coordinators, when facing him, prefer extra creativity to pure aggression.
“Our nature is we're going to attack, that's just the nature of Pittsburgh,” inside linebacker Larry Foote said. “But sometimes, it’s a chess match. A lot of offenses, to slow us down, they don't send that many receivers out. … So we'll play that game a little bit, but ultimately, we're going to bring pressure.”
Each time, they'll have to contend with the inexperienced referees replacing the regulars, who have been locked out. It's possible that, given Manning's neck and the Steelers' reputation, the newcomers will protect the 36-year-old quarterback too vigilantly.
“I'm sure they'll be enamored by it and want to protect him, but I think the rules of the game allow them the freedom to protect him,” said free safety Ryan Clark. “There's not much you can do to Peyton Manning anyway without getting a flag. I remember seeing him play against the Philadelphia Eagles years ago, with the new rule you can't hit guys on the head. And he got tapped -- I'm talking about tapped -- on the head and it was a personal foul. So it can't get much softer than that.”
Just as he was during the playoff game, Clark will be a spectator Sunday, sidelined to prevent a repeat of a nearly fatal interaction between Denver's altitude and his blood disorder, sickle-cell trait, in 2007. He announced the launch of Ryan Clark's Cure League this week, hoping to raise research funds, and tried to console himself with the fact that his predicament calls attention to the disease.
His defensive mates, meanwhile, get to relish the big stage and the challenge of Manning. Asked if he'd rather get another shot at demystifying Tebow, Foote didn't bother to ponder.
“As a competitor, I want Peyton Manning,” he said. “Everybody in the world is going to be watching, my old girlfriends who dumped me, everybody who talked about me, everybody who doubted me.”
Keenan Lewis, an expected new starter at cornerback, grew up in New Orleans, hearing about the Manning brothers, visiting their school and seeing the hallowed jerseys of Peyton and Eli. His high school coach was the father of Reggie Wayne, Manning's favorite receiver in his later years as a Colt. Reggie would visit and tell his father's charges about the quarterback's obsessive game-film study, Lewis said.
“When we found out we were playing him in the opener, I got all these calls from home, everybody telling me they can't wait to watch,” he said.
Another young Steeler defender, Cameron Heyward, has a closer connection. His dad, the late running back Craig “Iron Head” Heyward, played his last season in the NFL with the Colts in 1998, taking handoffs from a rookie quarterback who had just been drafted at No. 1.
As a group, the defense has been watching some vintage Indy game films, along with footage from Denver's exhibition season. The players say they haven't reviewed the playoff game and that final play. LeBeau says they have no need to watch it -- but the coaching staff is another matter.
“Yeah, oh yeah, I've watched it several times,” LeBeau said after Thursday's practice. “You learn from your mistakes. You look at it, you look at everything. This isn't a business where you stick your head in the sand and hope it gets better.”
All through his interview session, LeBeau tried to get away from the past, focus only on Sunday, not January's playoff loss. But he kept returning to the topic, at least once without any prodding from reporters.
He could explain the decision on that final play, and almost justify it. The Steelers all played near the line of scrimmage, practically taunting Tebow's arm a week after he had thrown for just 60 yards against Kansas City. They had lined up this way several times before, in a defense called cover-9.
“We played it a bunch. It had a lot of good wins for us,” LeBeau said. “We played the run real well in that game, if you remember, and we broke down on three or four long passing plays, only one of which happened to be that particular coverage.”
Tebow threw a short pass over the wall of Steelers to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who turned the play into an 80-yarder. No one could get back to stop him.
LeBeau laments the failure to contain the play, without blaming anyone but himself. He has to mold the next generation of Pittsburgh defenders, make them proper descendants of the Steel Curtain. This is how the work starts, with a coach accepting, embracing, and if necessary wallowing in blame for a play gone horribly wrong.
The cover-9 underestimated Tebow and, even more, his coaches' willingness to let him fling the ball when the chance arose. But no one will be underestimating the current Denver quarterback, or his coaches' faith in him. The team gave him a deal worth a potential $96 million after he spent a full season out of the game.
The Steelers can't play out a revenge fantasy with Manning behind center. They can only win back a piece of who they are.
In an era of staggering offense, a Manning renaissance matters more to the NFL -- but for the football world to seem right, the league needs the Steelers being the Steelers.