ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Tempers did not flare between the Broncos and San Francisco 49ers, as they did at some other joint practices around the NFL, including the Broncos' sessions with the Houston Texans last year.
The focus was on football. On teaching. On making sure as few players hit the ground as possible. And, from the Broncos' perspective, it was also on the new player who was there -- guard Evan Mathis, who worked with the strength-and-conditioning coaches -- and the casualty who wasn't: kicker Connor Barth.
With Barth's release Tuesday morning to make room for Mathis, Brandon McManus was left as the only placekicker. He went 12-of-12 on kicks that ranged from 28 to 50 yards, and had perhaps his best day in a month filled with them.
"It's still bitter in my mouth from last year. Just trying to do the best I could," McManus said. "Coming out here today, it wasn't an easy day to kick. [I was] 12-for-12 today, so it was a good day to get the load off my back and feel good about it."
McManus' adjustment and growth in his second chance at nabbing the kicking job is where the Takeaways begin.
1. CHANGING THE WINDUP.
McManus believes that one reason for his improved accuracy this year is the elimination of a "jab-step" at the beginning of his run-up to the football on placekicks.
McManus realized last summer that he needed to remove the extra step, but when he was traded to the Broncos, he didn't have the time to work on it.
"I wanted to do it. When I was in Indianapolis and New York, they both said it would probably be beneficial for me. Even [former Broncos kicker] Matt Prater did it, I think two years before his record-breaking season [in 2013]," McManus said. "It is successful and I think there are about 50 percent of kickers in the league that have the jab step still, and then 50 percent that don't."
It's a simple equation: by eliminating a step, McManus has one less component of his swing that can go wrong.
"If I take that jab step, I could end up with a huge plant foot and could really spray the ball a lot, accuracy-wise," he said.
"... I could really get lengthy on my steps which, in our business, an inch will end up missing by 10 yards. I just wanted to get rid of that and make me a smooth as possible."
After McManus was waived last Nov. 25, brought back to the practice squad and then re-promoted to the 53-man roster for kickoff duty with a week last fall, McManus re-focused on eliminating the extra step again when he was off to the side while Barth worked on placekicks in practice. Even as Barth solidified his 2014 role by hitting 15 of 16 field-goal attempts, McManus could see his accuracy improve without the jab step.
"It happened pretty rapidly at the end of last year, when I was kicking field goals on the side. I wasn't taking the team reps, but I was still able to see that I was much more under control when I'm swinging towards the ball."
2. KICKOFFS MATTERED.
The special-teams focus Wednesday was on field goals, punts and punt returns. But kickoffs mattered -- not only in terms of distance, but what Special Teams Coordinator Joe DeCamillis calls "manageable space. That usually means placing the kick outside the numbers and even if it's into the end zone, it can coax the returning team into eschewing the touchback, which sets up the chance for a tackle inside the 20-yard-line.
Because McManus has hang time -- usually in the range of 4.20 to 4.25 seconds -- to go along with his distance, he can mix it up.
"In college, we did do some directional stuff, but I was kind of able to swing away at it," McManus said. "Last year, our goal was to get touchbacks down the middle. I still think we're trying to kick for distance here; we just want to do direction.
"We're going to the right corner; we're going to the left corner, outside the numbers, to try to make the return difficult on them and let them decide whether they want to bring it out five (yards) deep outside the numbers when their whole return scheme is going to be kind of messed up."
The difference in the hang time McManus and Barth was palpable -- often in the range of 0.45 seconds.
- DISCIPLINE, BUT COMPETITIVENESS, AS WELL.**
There were no scrums, donnybrooks or outbursts. Practice was professional, although it did have some solid hits, particularly from the Broncos' defense -- and from 49ers LB NaVorro Bowman, who was their most disruptive force when they were able to defuse the Broncos' running game.
Bowman looked all the way back from the torn ACL and MCL that he suffered in the 2013 NFC Championship Game, and the extra time afforded his rehabilitation because he missed all of 2014 appears to be paying off.
"Guys like NaVarro Bowman are great guys to work against for our tight ends and running backs," said QB Peyton Manning. "They have a defensive coordinator who has been around for a long time in Coach [Eric] Mangini. I thought it was good work today, it'll be good tomorrow and it can help us be a better team."
4. TYPICAL UPS AND DOWNS.
The offense struggled in the two-minute period at the end of practice, with three of four drives ending in interceptions. But most of its work the rest of the day was crisp. C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and the rest of the running backs had ample room to get upfield for solid gains, and Peyton Manning was rarely threatened. The pickoffs in the two-minute period were San Francisco's only thefts of the day.
"I didn't know we were grading practices on Wednesdays in August," Manning said with a laugh. "We didn't stink today."
The San Francisco 49ers arrived at UCHealth Training Center on Wednesday for their first of two intense practices hosted by the Broncos. (All photos by Eric Bakke)
- DEALING WITH THE BREEZE.**
As Omar Bolden tries to cement a role as the Broncos' punt returner, he needs more days like the one he had Wednesday, where gusts picked up unexpectedly and changed the trajectory of the punts he had to field during a punt-return period early in practice.
Bolden cleanly fielded every punt that came his way, and let two bounce harmlessly after they hung up in the 12-miles-per-hour breeze that blew in the face of the punters.