Peyton Manning missed all of the 2011 season after two neck surgeries. He's 36 and the Steelers would love to welcome him back to the game with a few nice hits tonight. To a man, they say they won't be bashful if they get a chance for a good, clean hit on one of the game's most heralded quarterbacks.
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"I see him as a quarterback that I'm trying to get to, as I see him as any other quarterback that I'd be trying to get to," linebacker James Harrison said. "Injury has no bearing on it. He's a healthy individual. There's nothing wrong with him. He's had surgery, as many other players have had in the NFL."
It's not easy getting to Manning. He's been sacked just 231 times in 13 seasons. He's attempted 7,210 passes. The most he's been sacked is 29 times in 2001.
For perspective, Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 314 times in eight seasons. He's attempted 3,313 passes, fewer than half as many as Manning. Roethlisberger has been sacked fewer than 30 times once, in 2005 when he missed four games with injuries.
"He's been hit," Casey Hampton said of Manning. "He's been hit hard this preseason too, so I don't think that's going to be an issue."
The Steelers did not generate much of a pass rush in the preseason with only four, and they haven't had fewer than the 35 sacks they managed last season since 1990, when they had 34.
A night to remember
The Steelers picked defensive ends on the first round in the 2009 and 2011 drafts. Neither has started in an opening game.
That changes for Ziggy Hood, who started 14 games last season after longtime left end Aaron Smith left with another injury. Cameron Heyward enters his second season looking for his first start. But it won't come tonight because Brett Keisel has overcome his high ankle sprain to return to the lineup.
"I have an opportunity to start, so I'm going to take advantage of it, keep pushing and do my job out there," Hood said.
Overall, the Steelers have a surprising number of first-time, opening-game starters for having the eighth-oldest roster in the NFL. Others making their first opening-game starts are Keenan Lewis at left cornerback, Marcus Gilbert at right tackle, Isaac Redman (or Jonathan Dwyer) at halfback, Will Johnson at fullback (if they open with one), Antonio Brown at wide receiver, Ryan Mundy at free safety and, if James Harrison cannot go, Chris Carter at outside linebacker.
L.C. would love it
Those Steelers wearing gold shoes in Denver tonight aren't doing so in honor of L.C. Greenwood. They're wearing them because the NFL finally will allow it.
You have heard that Nike took over the apparel business in the NFL this season, and the company produced an approved gold shoe for the Steelers. They had one previously that had a dash of gold, but the new shoes have gold as the dominant color with a splash of black.
"It's kind of just a changeup," said Maurkice Pouncey, among those who will wear the gold shoes. "Nike showed us a little love and we're going to take advantage of it."
Greenwood wore gold shoes in the 1970s and the NFL regularly fined him for it. The league still issues fines for players not wearing the approved shoes and colors. In the 1980s, it became popular for some players who had, say, Nike contracts but preferred another brand of shoe, to paint the Nike swoosh where it should go on the rivals' shoe. That doesn't happen anymore.
No. 7 back in style
A package arrived at my dormitory room at Saint Vincent College two summers ago. In it were two youth Ben Roethlisberger jerseys, black. They came from South Carolina, I believe, with a note from a father that his kids would no longer wear them.
The Steelers received countless others at their Pittsburgh addresses. The two I received were turned over to a charity.
Well, No. 7 is popular again. According to Fanatics.com, a leading retailer of officially licensed merchandise, Roethlisberger's jersey ranked No. 16 in sales among all NFL players since the end of last season. He is two spots ahead of Michael Vick, another quarterback whose popularity took a dip a few years ago. Troy Polamalu ranks No. 7, and No. 1 among all defensive players.
Peyton Manning's new Broncos jersey tops all sales. The team selling the most merchandise? The Steelers are No. 1, with the Giants No. 2. Winning a Super Bowl and playing in New York still wasn't enough for them to knock off the Steelers.
A more confusing fact is that Pittsburgh was not among the top 10 cities that bought NFL gear since the end of last season. No. 1 is Houston, but No. 2 is Jacksonville, where they have to cover up 10,000 seats in their stadium each game so they have a chance of selling out and avoiding a TV blackout. Jacksonville is also where they cut a deal to play one home game each year in London and where some analysts believe lies the next franchise to move.
The Steelers, by the way, not only led in top-selling merchandise but in all sales to men, in all sales to women and in all sales to kids.
The corner lot
Since Ike Taylor became a starting cornerback in 2005, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls and lost another. His partner at the other side changed often. They went from Deshea Townsend to Bryant McFadden to William Gay back to McFadden and then back to Gay.
Now it is Keenan Lewis' turn to start at left cornerback.
"I think Keenan did a great job for us last year," Dick LeBeau said. "Our pass statistics went up and I think it was because of him, Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen."
Lewis said simply, "I'm ready."
Mike Tomlin said Monday that Lewis, in his fourth season, has performed and practiced better than he has previously. Lewis said that's what a player should do, improve each year.
"I'm a lot better on route recognition and things like that," he said.
As the new corner, he expects Manning to target him tonight.
"He's a great quarterback. I know he's going to come after me a lot. I'm ready to go."
He began watching video early this year of Manning's days with the Colts to try to pick up tendencies, etc.
"I started breaking down film and watching him during camp, seeing the throws he likes to make, how he controls the offense, trying to set the pace of the game, which a veteran of 15 years will do.
Jerome Bettis has his own blog at sotl.com, a website and partner of NFL Players Inc. that features player news and blogs, among other things.
This week, Bettis headlines an item "My Pittsburgh Steelers Have Me Worried." He questions how good a job the line will do protecting Ben Roethlisberger and questions whether the offense can "be a really good one." He does not think it's a good idea for Mike Wallace to jump right back into the thick of things and writes the odds of him pulling a hamstring "are really great."