Gerald McCoy was finishing up a pregame drill in the end zone before the start of the 2009 Oklahoma-Texas game when the Sooners defensive tackle inadvertently bumped into someone standing near the goal post.
When McCoy turned to apologize, he was stunned to see the bystander he'd bumped into was none other than Peyton Manning, at the Cotton Bowl that day to see Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford.
Three years later, McCoy and Manning will be back on the field together for today's Buccaneers-Broncos game, though McCoy's intention this time is to bump into the Denver quarterback purposely and repeatedly.
"Me and the rest of the guys up front, we have to find a way to get to him and help out our guys on the back end,'' said McCoy, a Bucs defensive captain, referring to Tampa Bay's beleaguered secondary. "We just have to.''
That secondary certainly needs help from somewhere. It has been the target of rival quarterbacks since Peyton's younger brother, Giants quarterback Eli, strafed it for 510 yards passing in Week 2. And the situation has deteriorated since.
Tampa Bay (6-5) enters today's game at Denver (8-3) allowing 316 passing yards per game, the most in the league by more than a first down. The secondary is without opening-day starting cornerbacks Aqib Talib, who was traded to New England, and Eric Wright, who is suspended four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
And here comes Manning, who is playing at a level that makes you wonder if his four neck surgeries last year didn't also include the insertion of a bionic mechanism. Only a few months removed from a time when many wondered if he would play again, Manning ranks third in the league in completion percentage (67.7), touchdown passes (26) and passer rating (104.8).
"He's still a guy who can get the ball where he wants to, when he wants to,'' Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "But I'll say this, the Broncos have lost three times this year, so someone has figured out a way to beat them.''
The three teams that beat the Broncos racked up big points against them. Houston and New England each scored 31, and Atlanta had 27.
They also harassed Manning, who can be made to look somewhat ordinary when pressured. Of the 16 sacks Manning has absorbed this season, eight came in those three losses, and a few led to game-deciding turnovers.
That's why the Bucs believe their best chance to win is to get to Manning. Of course, that's a rather tall order for a team whose pass rush has misfired more often than a Flintrock musket on a snowy day.
Ravaged by injuries and ineffective blitzes, the Bucs are 28th in the 32-team league in sacks with 18. They're quick to point out, though, that harassing the quarterback is not always about getting sacks.
"Everybody wants sacks because that's what you're measured by, but what you really want to do is just affect the quarterback,'' McCoy said. "That's what we try to emphasize, and there are a lot of different ways to do that. You don't always have to hit the quarterback to do it.
"You can do it by batting down a pass or just getting your hands up in the quarterback's face and disrupting his vision. As defensive linemen, you know when you're not going to get there and get a sack on a guy, and that's when you have to do something different and still affect his throw.''
The Bucs have tried different approaches for weeks, to little avail. Last week, they effectively pressured Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on just six of 34 dropbacks, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
With little in the way of pressure to knock him out of his comfort zone, Ryan was sacked once and intercepted once while completing 26 of the 32 passes – an astonishing 80 percent – for 353 yards and a touchdown.
"We can definitely do better than that,'' said left end Michael Bennett, who leads the Bucs with seven sacks but has struggled to beat chip blockers and double teams since the September loss of right end Adrian Clayborn to a knee injury. "And that starts with us playing better as a (defensive unit). No one is pointing fingers at anybody here.''
McCoy isn't so sure. He suggested this week part of the problem with the pass rush might be a result of players losing focus by questioning the play calls coming in from the sideline.
"We just have to start owning the plays that are called more,'' he said. "We can't always look for a different call. If they call a certain defense, instead of saying, 'Why are we doing this?' or whatever, just do it to the best of your ability.''
Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan didn't seem bothered by the suggestion some of his calls were being questioned. Rather, he was encouraged by McCoy's suggestion to buy into the calls.
"It's encouraging to hear that our guys are taking ownership of the situation and realize that a lot of what they've got to do is simply finish their rushes,'' he said. "They just have to execute the techniques we're practicing.''
And maybe work a little harder. McCoy sensed a bit of a drop-off last week in the way the Bucs attacked Ryan during their 24-23 loss to the Falcons at Raymond James Stadium.
"I honestly don't think we played as fast or as physical last week as we have in the past,'' McCoy said. "But it's going to be highly necessary that we do that this week, especially with Manning.
"We absolutely have to find a way get in this guy's face this week, because if you don't faze him, he'll make it like he's playing 7-on-7 against you, and that would not be good.''