It was October 21st 2007. Jason Elam of the Denver Broncos lined up roughly 54 yards away from the opposing goalposts. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the visiting team to Mile High Stadium and the game was tied at 28 points apiece with just two seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Elam, a veteran kicker and long-time Broncos player, kicked the ball so it sliced through the thin air for a 49 yard field. That field goal handed the Steelers their second loss of the season, a tough one after a phenomenal game, but ultimately an irrelevant one.
The thin air, that had a positive effect on Elam’s field goal attempt, had also had a massive effect on Steelers safety Ryan Clark. Clark, then playing in his second season as a Steeler, suffered a splenal infarction when the thin air combined with his sickle cell trait. Clark was rushed to hospital, where he had his spleen and gall bladder removed. Clark lost 30 pounds and was fortunate to survive. He didn’t play another game of football that season, but returned the following year.
Since that game, Clark has emerged to become a pivotal part of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, but has never played a game in Denver since. There have been opportunities, but the franchise has always prevented him from risking his life by playing.
The Steelers’ opening game in Denver against the Broncos this weekend will be no different. Just like the team’s playoff loss at the end of last season, Ryan Mundy, not Clark, will be the starting free safety on Sunday. The Broncos will be delighted to see Mundy because even though he is an impressive backup, Mundy was at fault for DeMaryius Thomas’ (in)famous touchdown reception that beat the Steelers in overtime of that game.
While most blame Ike Taylor for the reception, it was later learned that the Steelers were in zone, not man, coverage and Mundy never dropped into his area of the field where Thomas caught the football initially. Mundy was out of position because he bought on play-action, if he is fooled this weekend, it will be Peyton Manning not Tim Tebow looking to take advantage.
Ryan Clark is an important player for the Steelers’ defense, he cleans up everything that Troy Polamalu misses and acts as a safety blanket for the whole defense. Without he and James Harrison, who is set to miss the game with a knee injury, Manning and his new teammates will be delighted to open up the season against the Steelers.
Not only will the Broncos’ offense look to take advantage of Mundy and Harrison’s replacement, Chris Carter, but they will also not have to face a fully fit Casey Hampton, while Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace are also unlikely to be of any major impact on the other side of the ball. Wallace has missed all of the off-season while Mendenhall is returning from a torn ACL. Implementing Todd Haley’s new offense without key players completely comfortable can only benefit the Broncos.
That said, while the Broncos are delighted to face off against the Steelers now, the Steelers probably couldn’t have picked a better time to extract revenge in Mile High.
Not only will the memory of that heartbreaking loss in Denver be a major motivating factor for the team, they have also had plenty of time to prepare for their issues and gameplan for Manning. Outside linebacker Chris Carter has impressed in preseason running with the first unit in Harrison’s place, while Mundy will have spent plenty of time focusing on the gameplan. The difference between having an off-season to prepare for an elite quarterback and having a single week should have a major impact on the overall performance of the players.
And what of said elite quarterback? Will he even be elite at this point?
Dick LeBeau will have a huge amount of respect, and likely some fear, for Peyton Manning entering this game, but a part of him must be relishing taking on the superstar at this early point of his football rehabilitation. Nobody can step away from the game for the best part of two years and not show some rust. Manning, if he is even a shadow of his former self, will put up points but LeBeau will feel confident of forcing turnovers.
Throughout his career Manning has never been a hesitant quarterback. His intelligence, awareness and accuracy allows him to make quick decisions while his instantaneous release gives rushers no chance of hitting him in rhythm. Conversely, Dick LeBeau has based his defense around the ideal of forcing the quarterback to hold onto the football longer than he intends to. With Manning just back, the likelihood of him holding onto the football and being more labored in his decision-making is heightened.
Not only is Manning returning from health issues, he is also still looking to develop rhythm and timing with his new teammates. In a pass heavy offense, what the Broncos are expected to run, it’s not simply a case of turning up and having perfect timing from the first snap. Manning will need to learn how his receivers act and react in game situations. Minor nuances of their relationships in camp are bloated once the regular season begins.
While Manning is looking to take advantage of Clark’s loss, LeBeau will be looking to take advantage of his continuing development with receivers such as Eric Deker and Demaryius Thomas.
Had the Steelers and Broncos met later on in the season, Clark still wouldn’t be playing, but James Harrison likely would be at 100 percent, as would Casey Hampton, Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace. On the flipside, with more time Manning would be in better shape with his offensive teammates while the Broncos’ young defense would also have had time to grow together.
For many reasons more than any other two teams this weekend, the Broncos and Steelers will be happy to be facing each other on the first games of their schedules.
Cian Fahey writes for Irishcentral and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf