Cornerback Antonio Cromartie, here breaking up a pass against the 49ers two weeks ago, is healthy and needed against Peyton Manning and the Broncos' passing game.
Rashad Johnson has played in the NFL for six years, enough time to face nearly all of the league's great quarterbacks, and yet there is still something special to him about Peyton Manning.
"Oh, man," the veteran safety said. "As a defensive back, when you're going up against an all-time great, it's fun to go out and perform against him. You want to perform well. That's something that will stick in your mind forever, especially mine. Once you finish playing ball you can talk to your kids: 'I played against Peyton Manning.'"
For Johnson and the rest of the Cardinals' secondary, the goal on Sunday is make that a positive memory instead of becoming another victim to Manning's greatness. The Broncos' star quarterback has made a career out of slicing and dicing opposing defenses, accumulating
video game numbers for the better part of two decades. He is one touchdown pass away from 500, and nine away from tying Brett Favre for the league's career record.
"If he gets nine, I'm not getting on the plane (home)," coach Bruce Arians said.
"I'll give him one."
Manning's genius, in addition to his considerable natural talent, is in his football acumen. Arians coached Manning for three seasons with the Colts, and said a player never outlasted him at the team facility until one Thursday night when the clock struck 9:30 p.m. and Manning remained with backup Kelly Holcomb. Arians threw in the towel and headed home.
"I said, 'Here's my cell phone number, man,'" Arians said. "'Call me if you guys got any questions.'"
Manning's performance at the line of scrimmage is a work of art. He will often go no-huddle to force a defense into its formation, then quickly dissect the best way to attack it.
"Having him back there to orchestrate the whole thing makes my job a lot easier," Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker said.
The Denver running game has not been strong and the Cardinals' defense is stout up front, so the outcome could hinge on how well the Cardinals limit the damage through the air.
Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie have teamed to form an impressive cornerback duo on the outside – exactly the vision the team had when Cromartie came aboard in free agency – while slot cornerback Jerraud Powers had an interception in the opener against the Chargers and will have another important role this week in covering Welker.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has shown a propensity to use his four safeties – Johnson, Tony Jefferson, Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu – in positions all across the field, and they are crucial against standout tight end Julius Thomas and in both pass and run game
Bowles knows what he's up against in Manning and Denver's various weapons, but said the Cardinals can't get away from what makes them successful.
"We know they've got players at every position, but we've got players," Bowles said. "We have to focus on us and that's what we're trying to do."
Bowles likes to mix up his blitzes so a quarterback doesn't know where the pressure will come from, and the winner of that chess match will have a leg up. Manning is not mobile, so he is susceptible to pressure. If he recognizes it, though, he will find the optimal matchup and exploit it.
"It's very difficult to disguise against Peyton, but I believe something we need to do to throw him off, like Cromartie told us earlier (Monday), is make sure everything looks the same so he doesn't get a bead on us," Peterson said. "So he doesn't know when we're in man-to-man, so he doesn't know when we're in zone pressure or playing zone or cover two. We want to make sure every single coverage looks the same so we make sure we get in his head versus him getting into ours."
Manning will make a lot of quick throws and rely on his receivers to pick up yards after the catch. Very few teams have completely bottled up him throughout an entire game, and Peterson said it's important to remain patient and avoid giving up the big play.
"Three-, five-, seven-yard dink and dunks are not going to hurt us," Peterson said. "We can live with that every day of the year if teams want to dink and dunk us all the way down the field, because at the end of the day, offenses are not that patient to take five or six yards every throw all the way down the field. It's just not going to happen."
Manning was wildly successful last year no matter what a defense tried, averaging 342 passing yards per game, and is 74-of-111 for 814 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception through three games in 2014. Bowles laughed heartily when asked to explain what makes Manning so hard to stop.
"I don't think I can say anything the other 50 million coaches that played him haven't said," Bowles said. "He's a great player. He's a legend in his own time. He's a Hall of Famer."
So the Cardinals' secondary will do its best, realistic enough to know what it faces but confident in the personnel. It seems inevitable Manning will throw for at least one touchdown on Sunday, and the No. 500 football will be saved for him like numerous others in his historic career.
And that's just fine with the Cardinals' defensive backs provided they can grab a few keepsakes of their own.
"Hopefully we get some balls off him that we can bring home and keep as souvenirs," Johnson said.
Images of past matchups between the Cardinals and this week's opponent, the Broncos