DENVER -- **Sunday's game may not come down to Brandon McManus' right foot. But if it does, he's ready.
The Broncos' new placekicker goes into Week 5 with a vote of confidence that follows the release of Matt Prater, who was scheduled to return from a four-game suspension this week. McManus' strong leg is obvious from his kickoff distances, but he also has consistency, which he attributes to lining up five steps from the kickoff spot, four steps closer than he once did.
In the last three games, McManus was perfect on placekicks and rocketed to second in the league in touchback percentage. But all of his field-goal attempts were from inside 25 yards, and just one was in a close-and-late situation -- in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs in Week 2.
"You always want a pressure kick, or something like that," said McManus. "But our offense is doing well putting the ball in the end zone, which is a testament to Peyton (Manning) and the offense and what they're doing.
"I think every kick is treated the same way. I kick it (from) 28 yards the same way that I kick a 55-yarder."
That is testament to the consistency of his swing. He has a clean, efficient stroke that bears no evidence of overstraining. One factor McManus notes is his height; at 6-foot-3, he is five inches taller than Prater. Another factor he notes is his leg speed.
"That's why I look methodical when I'm kicking it, but I am swinging (the kicking leg) at a high rate of speed," McManus said. "That's why I think my ball travels so far."
With distance set, the key is accuracy -- and if a pressure kick comes, treating it like any other. But for a kicker attempting to grab hold of one of 32 jobs, every kick is a pressure kick.
"We have to compete for our job every day," he said. "There's a lot of good kickers sitting on the street that could come in any day."
Last year, McManus was one, making ends meet by serving as a kicking instructor to teenagers. Now he's among the fortunate 32. If he continues to deliver, the Broncos will have made the right move.
He could be crucial, but there are other factors which will help decide the game.
- NEUTRALIZE ARIZONA'S PASS RUSH.**
Sack production does not tell the story for the Cardinals, who flourish by forcing enough pressure to get the quarterback to throw in the direction they want, usually through disguised coverages. Peyton Manning's quick decisions will help the Broncos' attempts to defuse the Cardinals' pass rush. If he can deliver the football before the pass rush disrupts and limits his possibilities -- and before the Cardinals have their downfield coverage in place -- Denver's offense should have more success against Arizona than that of the Chargers, Giants or 49ers in Weeks 1-3.
2. LIMIT THE EXPLOSIVE PASS PLAYS DOWNFIELD.
Arizona's offense requires deep shots to work. Michael Floyd is perhaps the biggest threat; he is proficient at catching passes down the sideline. Drew Stanton and Carson Palmer have each hit back-shoulder fades to him this season. But Larry Fitzgerald, slot receiver John Brown, receiver/returner Ted Ginn Jr. and tight end John Carlson have all posted receptions that were made at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage this season.
The multi-faceted threat leads to a vertical stretch of the defense, which opens lanes underneath for Andre Ellington to run and enhances the effectiveness of the bubble screen to any of the Cardinals' receivers. Safety Rahim Moore could be crucial; if he can read the deep intent of Stanton and get into position to help defend it, the Broncos won't have to drop T.J. Ward back as often and can allow him to make plays in the box and in the pass rush.
3. GET POSITIVE YARDAGE ON FIRST DOWNS.
Much of this will come down to the running game and the progress it has made the last two weeks. Lanes will be difficult to find against Arizona's defense, which does well at filling gaps, and benefits from the ability of Calais Campbell to break free from offensive linemen's attempts to engage him. Through three games, the Broncos' average on first-down, non-kneeldown runs is 2.825 yards -- well off the 4.20-yard average in the similar situation last year. If Broncos running backs can get to the line of scrimmage or beyond before first contact with a defender, the first-down ground game can return to its 2013 efficiency.