A new team, a mostly new supporting cast and a familiar formidable defensive foe in the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't stop Peyton Manning from lighting it up in his Denver Broncos debut Sunday night. Expect that trend to change in yet another primetime spot this Monday against the Atlanta Falcons. Manning may be hitting the road, but he is in the familiar confines of a dome, where he has picked opponents apart time and time again.
No. 1 target Demaryius Thomas caught as many passes in the home opener as he had during the entire preseason, highlighted by an electric 71-yard touchdown catch and run off a short screen pass. Eric Decker also has great chemistry with Manning already, as does his former Indianapolis Colts teammates Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme.
That makes two big-play receivers and two very dependable, possession targets that will allow Manning to continue being extremely efficient.
The duo of Thomas and Decker may not be as explosive as the Falcons' combo of Julio Jones and Roddy White, but the Broncos definitely have the edge under center.
Veteran corners Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson will present challenges to Denver's top receivers, but both are smaller and not quite the players they once were. Both Thomas and Decker have distinct size advantages, no matter who lines up across from them. That will not only help in jump ball scenarios, but also can create big gains on runs after the catch. Manning is as capable as anyone of finding a way to exploit those mismatches.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan took advantage of a shorthanded KC defense. His task will be more difficult against future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey and newly acquired Tracy Porter, who showed last week that he has the makings of a bounce back season with a game-clinching pick-six.
That should result in more time on the field for Manning, especially if the Falcons can't run it more effectively than they did in Week 1. Michael "The Burner" Turner only scratched out 32 yards on 11 carries.
Speaking of running effectively, the Falcons have enjoyed stout run support in recent years, but departed middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was the team's leading tackler over the past four seasons, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
More time for Manning on the operate means more time scheming and beaming pre-snap gibberish opposite Lofton's replacement, Akeem Dent. Matching wits with the four-time NFL MVP at the line of scrimmage will be extremely difficult for Dent, who recorded zero tackles in the first start of his young career.
According to another report by Ledbetter, Dent only played 11 snaps, since the Falcons used their sub package with three corners and two linebackers. That isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for Dent, and shielding him from game day reps will only hurt him even more against Manning.
Running the ball likely won't be the emphasis of Denver's game plan, but Willis McGahee has proven he has something left in the tank after a phenomenal year in 2011. His ability should be enough to draw Atlanta in on play fakes and open up opportunities for Manning to distribute the ball amongst his slew of capable targets.
It was as terse a test in Week 1 as Manning could have asked for in his return to the NFL, but he was clearly up to the task.
Now, the greatest regular season quarterback and most cerebral preparer the game has ever seen has an extra day to gear up for a raucous atmosphere in the Georgia Dome.
It's not as though Manning hasn't handled this scenario before, so it is more than reasonable to expect more of the same, great Peyton.
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