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Test of Mettle
September 22, 2008
Shaken by the injury to Tom Brady, nursing a bad knee and suddenly vulnerable behind a patchwork offensive line, Peyton Manning is confronting the greatest challenge of his career
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September 22, 2008

Test Of Mettle

Shaken by the injury to Tom Brady, nursing a bad knee and suddenly vulnerable behind a patchwork offensive line, Peyton Manning is confronting the greatest challenge of his career

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MANNING LIKES to say he's a 32-year-old in a 28-year-old body, thanks to his line's peerless protection. He has started every regular-season game since he came into the league in 1998, 162 in all, an accomplishment that means as much to him as his passing records. But to see Brady go down, after 128 consecutive starts, reminds Manning of his own football mortality. To make the point even clearer, the Chicago Bears and the Vikings hit him a combined 11 times in the past two weeks.

"A couple things are happening," Minnesota defensive tackle Pat Williams said last week. "Peyton's not moving as well as he was before the surgery, and their offensive line isn't what it used to be. Some of those young guys are getting killed."

The Bears and the Vikings employed similar strategies against the Colts, walking linebackers up to the line of scrimmage and sending them on blitzes through the middle, attempting to overwhelm Richard. Typically, the Indianapolis center has one of the most hectic jobs in the league. He has to change blocking assignments every time Manning changes plays, which, of course, is every few seconds. Jeff Saturday, who had started all but two games for the Colts since 2000, has no trouble multitasking. But without Saturday, who has missed the first two games while rehabbing a torn ligament in his right knee, Manning is making fewer changes, and the linemen have to communicate the blocking assignments to each other.

After the Bears beat the Colts 29--13 in the opener, Chicago defensive end Adewale Ogunleye crowed, "You could see how confused Peyton was. He didn't know what the hell was going on."

Manning, whose internal clock is as reliable as Big Ben, says he usually has 3.5 seconds to get rid of the ball. So far this season he estimates he's getting only two. Part of the reason is the cobbled-together line, missing not just Saturday but also guard Ryan Lilja, who's recovering from off-season surgery on his right knee. Then on Sunday left tackle Tony Ugoh hurt his groin in the second quarter and didn't return. But Manning believes the added pressure has more to do with Indy's feeble running game, which is gaining just 2.3 yards per carry.

In watching tape of the Colts last week, Williams did notice one aspect of their running game that impressed him. "Their tailbacks don't cut block," he said. The cut block is typically the most efficient way to handle a bigger player—a running back will dive at a defensive lineman's feet and take his legs out from under him. The problem with the cut block is that it puts a defender on the ground, where he's more likely to grab or roll onto a quarterback's leg. "That's pretty much how Brady got hurt," Williams said. "The Colts don't want anyone rolling into Peyton like that. It's why they don't cut."

Still, late in the second quarter on Sunday, Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards fell to the ground while on the rush and grabbed Manning's right foot. As the quarterback tumbled to the turf, he clutched his right knee. Manning was fine, but given the events of the previous Sunday, it was a frightening image for the Colts—and for the NFL. "You have to remember that every down, every snap, the most important thing is protecting him," says Justice. "You have to protect your best player."

The hit was reminiscent of the Colts' last trip to the Metrodome, for a preseason game in 2001, when Vikings defensive tackle Chris Hovan rolled into the back of Manning's right knee. In that game, much like this one, the Colts were missing a starting guard, Steve McKinney, forcing rookie Rick DeMulling into the lineup. Asked about that play last week, Manning said it was hard to recall, but when pressed as to who'd gotten beaten, he smiled and said, "It was DeMulling." A quarterback, especially one with Manning's steel-trap memory, does not easily forget shots to the knee.

MANNING'S TOUGHNESS is the most underrated part of his game. He has missed only one NFL play due to injury, in November 2001, after he was hit underneath his chinstrap. Manning's jaw was broken, and he was spitting blood, but he charged back onto the field after one snap. Now he's playing on a knee that takes about a half to get loose. Not coincidentally, it was late in the third quarter on Sunday when Manning connected for 58 yards with receiver Anthony Gonzalez, who as he went down lateraled the ball to Reggie Wayne for 18 more yards, setting up the Colts' first touchdown. Gonzalez called the lateral "probably the dumbest thing I've ever done," but it was just crazy enough to work.

The Vikings, picked by many as a Super Bowl contender, are now 0--2. Their starting quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, led five field goal drives and was booed at the end of each one. The crowd sensed what Jackson did not: Even if Manning were playing on one leg, field goals were not going to beat him.

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