INDIANAPOLIS - Robert Mathis still remembers the first time he wandered into the Colts' no-hit zone.
As the fifth-round draft pick went through a routine practice in 2003, he wound up getting a little too close to Peyton Manning on a pass rush. No, he didn't hit the franchise quarterback, but Indy coaches immediately scolded the rookie and reminded him of the potentially dire consequences if he made the same mistake again.
"If you come within two yards of him, you might get cut," Mathis said with a smile this week. "That's just the truth."
Mathis wised up fast, which is why he is still hanging around Indianapolis (4-2) and wreaking havoc in opposing backfields.
Since making that blunder, Mathis has seen and done just about everything in 11 NFL seasons.
He's won a Super Bowl, two AFC titles, been to five consecutive Pro Bowls, topped 100 career sacks and is now chasing the Colts' franchise record for sacks, held by his old pal Dwight Freeney. At age 32, he shares the NFL lead with 9 1/2 sacks, and he has proven to be every bit as effective as a standup linebacker as he was playing defensive end.
This weekend, Mathis will finally get a chance to add one missing line to his resume -- sacking Manning.
Though 14 players on Indy's roster remain from the Manning era, only five went up against him in practice -- linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner, safety Antoine Bethea, defensive linemen Ricardo Matthews, Fili Moala and Mathis. But through the years, the protective blanket around Manning always existed.
"If you did hit him, you might as well pack your bags and leave town," Angerer said.
On Sunday night, when Manning returns to Indianapolis for the first time as the opponent, the Colts' defense can finally line him up. Mathis and others have made it clear all week that they are not making this game personal.
But when the Broncos (6-0) and Colts (4-2) meet in the NFL's most anticipated homecoming since Brett Favre showed up in Green Bay with the Vikings, Mathis plans to get down to the business of putting Manning on the ground.
It won't be easy, and with Manning it never is.
In 230 career games, Manning has been sacked just 257 times, an average of 17.9 per season.
This year, Manning leads the league with 22 TD passes, a 128.8 passer rating, an offense that is on pace to shatter the NFL's single-season scoring record. He's been sacked just five times despite playing behind an offensive line that includes a backup left tackle, a first-year center and a right tackle who finished last week's 35-19 victory at right guard. The biggest challenge this week might be avoiding Mathis.
"If this was a scenario where all I had to do maybe was come back and wave and smile and kiss a few babies and sign a few autographs, it'd be different," Manning said. "But somehow I've got to figure out a way to stay away from Mathis and try to complete a few passes on (Vontae) Davis and Bethea and that's going to be tough because I think it's a tough defense."
Indy's defense looks nothing like the one Manning left behind.
The Colts have ditched their trademark 4-3 look for the trendy hybrid 3-4, cut ties with defensive captain Gary Brackett and let Freeney walk away in free agency.
Over the past two seasons, Indy has added five new starters in the front seven, moved Mathis and replaced three of the four starters in the secondary. Manning has spent most of the week working overtime to get familiar with all the new faces and philosophies.
But the ex-teammates know what to expect from their former quarterback.
"It's going to be a chess match, of course. He looks for his mismatches just like any other quarterback does," Bethea said. "It's going to be tough. He might get us a few times, we might get him a few times, but for the most part, like I continue to say, we got to go out there and play ball. When we get chances to make plays, we got to make our plays."
Especially Mathis, who has the ability to change games with big, turnover-causing sacks.
Manning has seen it before, he's just never been the target since that practice in 2003. Until now.
"Somebody asked me earlier, is it the same as playing against Eli, and I said I guarantee Robert Mathis hits a heck of a lot harder than Eli does," Manning said. "From that standpoint, it's definitely different. All I know is kind of what I have to do right now is great ready for a good defense. Boy, they're impressive to watch on film. Mathis, Robert is having a great year. It's really a factor."