ALAMEDA Rolando McClain was curious.
It was 2010, the Raiders were playing the Indianapolis Colts, and McClain was lining up for the first time across from quarterback Peyton Manning, whom the rookie linebacker had grown up watching on TV.
"You get in the NFL and you're like, 'Does he really make this many checks?' " McClain said last week. "He does. It's crazy. I was amazed."
Not star-struck, McClain clarified, but he walked away with a new appreciation of how Manning orchestrated his offense at the line of scrimmage in response to what he was seeing on the other side of the ball.
"When you go on the sideline, you're like, 'Damn, I thought we had him here. We could confuse him,' " McClain recalled. "But he would pick it up and understand what we're in.
"At the end of the day, if you know the answer to the test with Peyton, you can still get it wrong."
As they prepared to face Manning today for the first time with the Denver Broncos, the Raiders were a chorus in saying the four-time MVP looks like the Manning of old after recovering from his fourth neck surgery and sitting out last season.
Manning has completed 60 percent of his passes (69 of 115) for 824 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions, and he has a quarterback rating of 85.6, 20th in the league and just a tick behind the Jacksonville Jaguars' Blaine Gabbert.
That, combined with the Broncos' 1-2 start, has fueled some criticism of Manning and his arm strength, with ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski recently saying the ball "is not spinning out of his hand a la an Aaron Rodgers, a Matthew Stafford" and looks wobbly.
Broncos coach John Fox shrugged off the doubts as "semi-comical."
His Raiders counterpart, Dennis Allen, said he wasn't planning on "falling into that trap. He's Peyton Manning. He's a Hall of Fame quarterback."
Added Raiders safety Matt Giordano, who played with Manning for four years in Indianapolis: "I don't see anything different."
"He's still putting up good numbers," Giordano said. "He's still making the tough throws."
And he'll still run the no-huddle, of which he's a master, with his knack for reading defenses at the line of scrimmage and adjusting his players through a series of barked commands and hand gestures.
With the offense hurrying to the line, no-huddle makes it tough for defenses to substitute and relay their calls, and it allows a quarterback who's deft at calling plays at the line the opportunity to see if the defense will tip its hand.
Manning's command of those situations is what impressed McClain two years ago, as well as linebacker Philip Wheeler, who went against Manning in practice while playing for the Colts beginning in 2008. Wheeler said it was eye-opening to hear Manning "pointing out things against the defense when I was on defense."
Manning, working with a new team and personnel, might not have as many options when he steps to the line today. But the challenge on defense remains, particularly for a Raiders unit that ranks 26th against the pass and is one of just three teams without an interception.
"They try to get you where you're in a little bit of a stressful situation. You don't think quite as clearly, and they're on the line trying to get you to show what you're going to run defensively so that he can get them in the right play," Allen said. "We've got to do a great job of communicating, and then we've got to be patient."
Quarterback Carson Palmer and the Raiders' offense successfully ran the no-huddle last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because of his experience, Palmer has "a lot of latitude" to audible at the line, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said.
Palmer said his options in the no-huddle are limited since, like Manning, he's working in a new system this season. But, he said, "The more and more comfortable I get within this offense, the more of a package we'll put in, I'm sure."
Allen said the amount of no-huddle the Raiders run will vary from game to game.
"It will be a part of our offense," he said after the Steelers game. "Just because we ran it this week doesn't mean we'll run it next week."