A year ago this week, the Steelers had just returned from Baltimore, where they had been pounded into crab-cake filling by a murder of crows in purple and black, an indignity metastasized by the NFL Network's Warren Sapp, who pronounced the Steelers defense old and slow.
"And it's over," I believe was his predicate.
Sapp is such an expert, of course, that he was talking about a unit that eventually would blossom into the NFL's No. 1 defense still again in still another 12-4 Steelers autumn, and even today, no one who saw Lawrence Timmons chasing Peyton Manning Sunday night could accuse the 2012 Steelers defense of being old and slow.
Timmons is young and slow.
What, did I see that incorrectly?
Manning, lugging multiple neck surgeries and a year's worth of corrosion, was using an audible out of a second-and-6 from the Steelers' 41 midway through the second quarter. He glanced at his initial post-snap read, floated to his right and saw nothing more promising than the approaching Timmons.
That this one play in a 31-19 loss morphed into a7-yard run by a 36-year-old quarterback for a first down can't mean anything good. What it could mean is that Timmons might have great quickness but not great speed. Or that Timmons doesn't always take the best angle. Or that someone with more relevant contain responsibility had wandered away. Or that Dick LeBeau's defense is currently vulnerable in ways previously not even pondered.
"Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning," said veteran cornerback Ike Taylor in a five-minute burst of post-practice analysis Wednesday that included four sentences of that exact same structure:
"[Mark] Sanchez [the New York Jets' quarterback] is Sanchez."
"The secondary [of the Steelers] is the secondary."
"Deebo [linebacker James Harrison] is Deebo."
"Tone [Jets' wideout Santonio Holmes] is Tone."
And you wonder why "It is what it is" is a two-time cliché of the year.
In any case, as the Steelers' concentrated urgency flips from the league's only four-time MVP -- Manning -- to the league's only 48-point producer from kickoff weekend -- Sanchez and the Jets -- problems persist throughout a proud and decorated unit that once dictated and now seems more capable of taking dictation.
"You can only fool Peyton Manning for so long," Taylor insisted.
That's one of the game's great truisms, certainly, but in their debut performance, the Steelers couldn't fool Willis McGahee, Demaryius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, Eric Decker, Matt Willis, Brandon Stokley or just about anyone who happened to be sharing the field with Manning.
In the fourth quarter, the first 50 seconds of which Ben Roethlisberger spent finishing a 14-play, 80-yard drive that put the Steelers ahead, Denver scored all three times it touched the ball, not counting two snaps that asphyxiated the clock to end the show.
Fourth-quarter gashes into the Steelers defense measured 9, 12, 8, 6, 14, 11, 17, 5, 11, 18 and 8 yards.
"It happens; that's football," said Chris Carter, whose statistical performance measured but one tackle at Harrison's right outside linebacker spot. "As a defense, we're always confident; I never get concerned about that. I practice with these guys every day so I see how they prepare, so I never really get concerned about confidence."
The harder truth is that a lot of people would be a lot more confident if Harrison could play, but he didn't practice again Wednesday. He hasn't for a week. The more favorable truth is that Ryan Clark will return to the secondary Sunday for the first meaningful game in the past three that hasn't been played in what is, for him, Denver's unhealthy altitude.
"Ryan's been an incredible comfort to me when he's out there," said fellow safety Troy Polamalu, who didn't practice either, owing to a calf injury. "A big part of this defense is the comfort we take in each other. You have to remember James Harrison is one of the best players in the NFL."
Polamalu said that he does not prepare differently nor is he deployed differently when Clark is on the field, but the notion that the Steelers don't turn him loose for attempted splash plays has calcified into truth. He had five tackles in the Clarkless opener, got victimized for Thomas's 71-yard touchdown and again played virtually splash free.
Still, the defense worked in high spirits at the heavy lifting of a midweek practice, barking out, "Wildcat, Wildcat" at the backups who played the Faux Jets, a recognition homage for Tim Tebow, the other quarterback responsible for consecutive quarterback ratings of 125 or better against the Steelers.
Taylor intercepted a pass intended for the faux Holmes, Keenan Lewis picked off another and no one lugged around any evidence that the Steelers' streak of nine consecutive successful home openers was in some way jeopardized.
If you listen too hard, you can get the feeling that they could feel better about themselves. But that's where they were a year ago this week as well.genecollier
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.