Here’s the thing about Week 1 in the NFL: It’s too soon to make any sweeping conclusions about anything. Of course, it won’t stop us from trying.
When Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-19, on Sunday night, was it a statement game for the Broncos against one of the NFL’s elite? Or was it a sign that Pittsburgh is an aging team in decline?
Did Manning put all the doubts to rest, passing for 253 yards and two scores in his first real NFL game in a year-and-a-half? Or would things have been very different it James Harrison and Ryan Clark had been able to suit up against him?
We can only speculate about those questions, but we can offer some take-aways from Denver’s big win:
1) Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning. How would Manning fare in his return to action? It’s the one thing everyone wanted to see this week. And if you didn’t know he missed the entire 2011 season, you wouldn’t know it. He had plenty of zip on the ball and was accurate all night. More importantly, he was the consummate field general he’s always been.
Manning utilized all his weapons – completing passes to six different receivers – and generally raised the level of his teammates’ play. Manning’s two TD passes bring his career total to 401, joining Brett Favre and Dan Marino as the only QBs to top 400. And if we learned anything tonight, it’s that it won’t be long before Manning cruises past Marino’s total of 420 for second on the all-time list.
2) Heath Miller is ready to explode. Heath Miller has been a good tight end for the Steelers, but Cris Collinsworth got a little carried away early in NBC’s telecast when he compared Miller’s value in Pittsburgh with that of Jason Witten in Dallas. Really? Miller has averaged 48 receptions a year in his seven NFL seasons. In that same span, Witten has averaged 82 catches per season. Miller’s only had more than 51 catches in a season once.
But wait… maybe Collinsworth was merely projecting the value Miller presents this season. Miller wasn’t just a dependable safety valve Sunday night. He was an out-and-out weapon. With the Steelers able to trot out three dangerous receivers in Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, defenses will have a hard time focusing too much attention on Miller. Denver did manage to slow him down in the second half, but that only freed up the outside receivers for Ben Roethlisberger, who finished with 245 yards, two touchdowns and one pick.
Miller finished with four catches for 50 yards – it should have been at least five catches and a touchdown. He was wide open in the end zone on a third-and-goal play, but Roethlisberger didn’t put any air under the pass and it was deflected away by Tracy Porter. Still, it looks like Miller will be a force this season.
3) Knowshon Moreno is still on the Broncos. The odds of winning Powerball weren’t as long as the odds of Knowshon Moreno scoring the first touchdown of the Peyton Manning Era in Denver. The former first-round bust was nowhere to be seen until the final seconds of the first quarter, when he got his first carry of the game. Then, after Manning drove the Broncos 74 yards down the field in classic no-huddle fashion, with all the weapons he had at his disposal, he handed off to Moreno for the final six yards and the score. In one half of football, Moreno managed to equal his entire scoring output of a year ago.
Moreno finished the game with a mere five carries for 13 yards. In addition to the touchdown, though, he also had a couple of first-down runs. In other words, he actually was a contributor. Starting RB Willis McGahee will be 31 in October and has a lot of tread on the tires, so a Moreno re-birth would be a big deal.
4) Jonathan Dwyer is the RB of choice in Pittsburgh. As obvious as it is, some folks just don’t want to accept the fact that Pittsburgh is a passing team. Maybe it’s the franchise’s blue-collar tradition that throws people off. Regardless, it’s time to give up on the idea that the Steelers can beat people on the ground. Nobody’s really sure if Rashard Mendenhall can be the big-time franchise running back when he returns. In the interim, Mike Tomlin is trying to figure out who else can carry the load.
One thing we do know after Sunday night: It’s not Isaac Redmond. Fantasy football owners everywhere were dismayed to see Redmond post a feeble 20 yards on 11 carries against Denver. But with nine carries for 43 yards, Jonathan Dwyer just might be the answer. Dwyer had another good run negated by a holding penalty, and he showed potential with stiff-arms and strong second-effort runs. Worth tracking his progress.
5) John Elway knows what he’s doing. Well, let’s give credit to the rest of the Denver front office and not just team president Elway. But the point is that the Broncos added more than just Peyton Manning this season – and the players they brought in made immediate contributions Sunday night. Cornerback Tracy Porter made several big plays before sealing the game with his pick six. Jacob Tamme, Brandon Stokley and Joel Dreessen combined for eight receptions. Safety Jim Leonhard, who the Jets let go after an injury last season, had a nice punt return.
Elway didn’t just bring in Manning and hope for the best. There’s a good mix of young players and key veterans on the Broncos squad.
It might be too soon to jump to conclusions, but the Broncos are on the right track.