Young Vikings defenders set to confront a legend in QB Peyton Manning [Star Tribune]

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Brian Robison remembers the rush of feelings — the excitement, the nervousness, the disbelief.

Nearly a decade ago now, Robison was a rookie defensive end for the Vikings preparing to play an NFL icon.

“I was in awe. He’s one of those guys I watched growing up and one of the best quarterbacks to play the game,” the 32-year-old said Friday. “So immediately when you look at him you’re like, ‘Holy cow. This is Brett Favre.’ ”

It was the fourth game of Robison’s career, and the Green Bay Packers beat the Vikings 23-16 on that late September afternoon in 2007. But Robison earned a memory he will cherish, a story he will be telling long after he retires.

“I can say, ‘I sacked Brett Favre when I played football,’ ” said Robison, the last Vikings player to take down Favre. “Well, it’s going to be the same thing with these young guys when they play Peyton Manning. You have to be hungry, and you have to look at it as an opportunity to kind of put that down on your résumé.”

The 2-1 Vikings are set to play the undefeated Denver Broncos on Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium. The Broncos have the NFL’s top-ranked defense, a formidable wideout duo and a unique home-field advantage up in the Rockies. And, of course, they have a living legend at quarterback in Manning, who at times this season has looked very much like a 39-year-old but still commands respect.

This Vikings defense has been one of the NFL’s best the past two weeks, beating up quarterbacks once opponents were forced to abandon the run. But Manning, wobbly passes and all, figures to be a tougher target to rattle.

This Manning experience will be a new one for many Vikings defenders who have never played Manning before, including six starters who are 26 or younger.

Safety Harrison Smith grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., and as a kid went to Volunteers games when Manning played at Tennessee. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes used to pick Manning as his quarterback while playing the “Madden” video game. Some of the Vikings picked Manning high in their fantasy football drafts throughout the years.

“He’s obviously been doing this for a long time. He’s going to be a Hall of Famer,” said Smith, one of many Vikings who have already enshrined Manning.

Coach Mike Zimmer said his Vikings defenders, while being respectful of the player that Manning was and may still be, must guard against being too in awe of him.

“I do think there’s a little bit of that when you have a young guy going against a guy like Peyton Manning for the first time in his career — or even Adrian Peterson,” he said. “Young guys are always aware of great players because they hear so much about them, they’ve seen them on tape, they’ve seen them winning playoff games and things like that. We’ll just keep trying to keep them focused on what their job is.”

Against the Detroit Lions and San Diego Chargers, the Vikings defenders couldn’t have done their jobs much better. They limited those teams to 2.9 yards per carry. They recorded five sacks and 20 quarterback hits. And they forced five turnovers.

“They’ve got an excellent group of players at all three levels,” Manning said. “They’ve got talented players everywhere. They’re well-coached and they’re communicating and they’re on the same page.”

In a new setting

The last time the Vikings played Manning was in 2008, when he was with the Indianapolis Colts. The Vikings kicked five field goals to take a 15-0 lead at the Metrodome, only to see Manning lead the Colts back in the second half for an 18-15 victory. Robison and outside linebacker Chad Greenway are the only defenders left from that year.

“A lot has happened since then,” Manning said Wednesday, looking back.

For you, too, right, Peyton?

“Sure. Sure.”

Four neck surgeries, one public divorce from the Colts, three straight AFC West titles with the Broncos, a trip to the Super Bowl and another MVP award later, Manning is gearing up for another playoff run with the Broncos, perhaps his last.

Their offense has been a work in progress, with new coach Gary Kubiak trying to mesh his under-center zone-running scheme with the shotgun spread passing attack that Manning prefers. Plus the Broncos have had to patch together an offensive line because of key injuries and the team ranks 31st in the NFL in rushing.

Unlike previous years, the Broncos control their division not because of Manning, but because of a star-laden defense that ranks first in the league. Some critics argue the Broncos are winning in spite of Manning. Others claim his physical tools have eroded to the point where his brain can no longer compensate for his noodle of a right arm.

Manning, often targeting Pro Bowl wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, has completed 63.8 percent of his passes for 755 yards and five touchdowns. He has thrown three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. But Zimmer cited a strong throw on a 25-yard comeback route earlier this season as proof that Manning has enough left on his fastball to still play the position well.

“To me he hasn’t changed,” Zimmer said. “He still looks like Peyton Manning.”

Tony Dungy, a former Gopher and Manning’s former coach in Indianapolis, can only chuckle when asked about all the fuss being made about Manning’s arm strength.

“I can go back to 1998 and people saying that [the Colts] should have taken Ryan Leaf because he had a stronger arm than Peyton Manning,” Dungy said in a phone interview. “Arm strength is not a necessity to be a top quarterback. It’s something you need obviously, but it’s not the most critical thing. Accuracy and poise and delivering the ball in the right spots and doing the right thing is much more important.”

Seeking good memories

Dungy saw signs in Denver’s win over Detroit last week, a game in which Manning threw for 324 yards, suggesting that Manning and Kubiak are starting to click.

“Last week, it was definitely a different style and different flow,” he said. “It’s a work in progress and I think they are going to be much better in Week 8, 9, 10 than they are right now.”

But this is Week 4, and Zimmer’s young defense is coming to town with something to prove. A road upset against Manning would make quite the statement.

Dungy is impressed with the collection of defensive talent Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have hoarded, especially up front. He believes the key Sunday will be generating pressure on Manning without blitzing because there is not much that Zimmer, who is 1-6 all-time against Manning, can throw at him that he hasn’t seen before.

“Denver’s got kind of a new, makeshift offensive line and that’s how the Vikings are going to have to win the game,” Dungy said. “If they do, I think they’ll have a good day.”

Some Vikings might be nervous about their first and likely last matchup with Manning. But others plan to make a positive memory out of it, just like Robison did against Favre back in 2007.

“This is something I’m looking forward to actually,” middle linebacker Gerald Hodges said. “It’s Peyton Manning. I’m very excited to go out there and play across from him knowing that he is going to be in the Hall of Fame soon after he is done playing football.”

http://www.startribune.com/young-vikings-defenders-set-to-confront-a-legend-in-qb-peyton-manning/330538131/

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