Brandon Marshall came out of nowhere for the Denver Broncos. After being signed to the practice squad in September of 2013, following his release from the team who drafted him, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Marshall garnered the attention of his teammates on the active roster by being a constant menace on the scout team.
His teammates campaigned for this disruptive linebacker to get “called up” to the active roster and eventually the coaches acquiesced, following Von Miller’s torn ACL in December of 2013. When the 2014 training camp rolled around, Marshall was in the mix to back up Danny Trevathan at weakside linebacker.
Then Trevathan went down with a leg injury in preseason practice, that would keep him out for weeks. The Broncos had lost their tackling machine and defensive leader in the huddle—the man who called the plays from the sideline with his radio helmet and was responsible for making sure each guy was lined up properly.
To the fans, it didn’t look good. But the coaching staff immediately announced that Marshall would take Trevathan’s place, including all of the previously mentioned duties, but it didn’t calm the fears of everyone in Broncos Country.
However, it didn’t take long for Marshall to endear himself to the fanbase by becoming the defense’s leading tackler and de facto captain. John Elway found another diamond in the rough, salvaged from the veritable NFL scrap pile.
Brandon Marshall saved the Broncos defense in 2014. He was the glue that kept them all together and led them to become a dominant run defense and top-5 unit in the league. With Trevathan and Marshall projected as the team’s starting inside linebackers in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense, Broncos Country has a lot to look forward to.
In this film study, we’re going to take a look at some of Marshall’s 2014 film to glean whether he can hold up as the Broncos “Mike” linebacker in the 3-4. The requirements for the position are different than what Marshall experienced as the “Will” LB in the previous 4-3 scheme.
”Mike” LB in a 3-4 requires more contact with big guards and tackles, which can wear on a player whose frame is more suited to playing in space, on the edge. Strength, durability, instinct and coverage abilities are all requisites for the position. Can Marshall make the transition?
All animated images via NFL Rewind.
Week 11 at St. Louis Rams
Play No. 1
Q2: 10:52: The Rams are in 22-personnel, with both tight ends on the right side. The Broncos are in their 4-3 base defense with SAM LB Von Miller “under” with what was likely a “closed” call left on the TE. Marshall is playing his typical WILL LB role, lined up to the right of MLB Steven Johnson.
The Rams want the Broncos to think the ball is going to the defense’s left—towards Miller, hence the two TE-set. However, at the snap, the ball goes to RB Tre Mason off the left guard, with his fullback leading the way through the hole.
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Marshall immediately commits, flowing downhill. At first, he sniffs the “A” gap, but the runner kicks it outside to the “B”, where his FB has led him. Marshall engages the FB, stacks him, and sheds him in time to make the tackle, limiting the play to a four-yard gain.
The term “stack and shed” is part of defensive nomenclature. It means that the linebacker engages a blocker, stands him up (stacks) and sheds the block. The key is keeping a lower pad level, swiping the blocker’s hands away, and ultimately shedding the block in time to make the tackle.
With the Broncos switch to a 3-4 defense, Marshall will be tasked with taking on and shedding NFL guards and fullbacks. It’s much more physically demanding, but this play shows us that Marshall is up to the job.
Play No. 2
Q3: 12:29: The Rams are in 12-personnel. TE Jared Cook starts in motion from the left side of the formation to the right, ultimately ending up where he started—but as an offset FB. The Broncos are giving the Rams a 3-4 look, with Miller and DeMarcus Ware as the OLBs and Marshall as the “Mike” and Steven Johnson as the “Mo”.
At the snap, QB Shaun Hill fakes the handoff, which draws the eyes of Marshall. Cook crosses the formation to the right flat, as the designed target. Marshall reads and reacts brilliantly. He doesn’t waste time biting hard on the play-action, instead moving to cover Cook in the flat.
The entire offensive line goes left, which only gives Marshall pause for a millisecond, before he’s charging down on Cook. Up to this point in the game, the Rams had pounded the rock with great success, causing the Broncos to gear up for it.
And that makes Marshall’s play that much more impressive. Also, note SS Ward's big hit on Cook right before the sideline. Although this play goes for seven yards, it shows that Marshall is an instinctual LB, which means that he has great diagnostic skill, gleaned by studying film and his opponent's tendencies.
Week 14 vs. Buffalo Bills
Play No. 3
Q3: 10:10: The Bills are in 11-personnel, with two receivers split right. QB Kyle Orton is in the shotgun. The Broncos are in their “big” nickel sub-package, with Marshall and SS T.J. Ward as the linebackers. The Broncos begin their look with a Cover 2 shell, but a the snap, they run a Cover 1 “Robber”, with S David Bruton dropping into the “hole” and FS Rahim Moore takes the centerfielder deep-middle.
Bills WR Chris Hogan drags underneath from the slot and sits down in the soft spot of the zone, while TE Scott Chandler does the same thing from the opposite in-line side. Ward shoots out to cover the running back in the left flat, leaving Marshall to man the zone solo.
Marshall first bites on Hogan, but when Orton pump-fakes and reloads, Marshall reads his eyes, which have zeroed in on Chandler. Marshall jumps the route for the interception—his only one of the season. This play shows us that he is good in coverage and understands route and zone concepts well.
Week 2 vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Play No. 4
Q3: 5:55: The Chiefs are in 11-personnel, with two receivers split right. QB Alex Smith is in the shotgun, with the RB next to him. The Broncos are in their nickel sub-package and they’re showing blitz.
Marshall is lined up to blitz on the far right of the defensive formation. At the snap, the left tackle drops back to pass block DT Malik Jackson, which leaves TE Anthony Fasano one-on-one on Marshall. Fasano is an above average blocker and pass rushing is not Marshall’s forte.
On the opposite side of the formation, OLB Miller has blown by the Chiefs RT, narrowly missing the sack on Smith. The mobile QB steps out of Miller’s tackle and would have run free to either make the throw downfield or scramble for positive yards, but Marshall is there to clean up.
In this blitz, Marshall exhibits a phenomenal stutter-step, and with underrated quickness, blows by Fasano in time to take down Smith. The Broncos brought an extra rusher here, and even stunted Ware inside. The Chiefs O-line gets confused with the movement and extra rusher, but they still have the advantage of six-guys-to-five. This is excellent scheme and execution by the Broncos defense.
Week 3 at Seattle Seahawks
Play No. 5
Q4: 13:22: The Broncos are in a dogfight with the Seahawks—on the road. They’re fighting to get back into the game but the defense has to make a stop. The Seahawks are in 21-personnel, with twin receivers left. The Broncos are in base defense, with SS Ward showing blitz on the defensive left side of the line of scrimmage.
Before the snap, WR Jermaine Kearse goes in motion, lining up tight to the left tackle. His job is to keep the Broncos right DE Ware from crashing down and stopping the play from behind. Alas, Kearse is overmatched. The play is designed to go right, between the C and RG, but Ward’s blitz spooks RB Marshawn Lynch to cut left on the backside of the play.
Ware is the first man to make contact with Lynch, slowing him up behind the goal-line long enough for DE Derek Wolfe and Marshall to swarm. Amazingly, Lynch shakes off Wolfe and were it not for a superhuman effort by Marshall, holding up at the point of attack mano-a-mano, Lynch would have squirted free and out of the endzone.
But Marshall shows phenomenal strength, holding Lynch in place long enough for the swarm tackle to ensue. To be fair, this play was made because of several Broncos defenders making key plays. But at bottom, it wouldn’t have resulted in a desperately-needed safety, had Marshall not held Lynch up, after Wolfe was shaken loose.
Brandon Marshall’s transition to ILB in the 3-4 will be seamless. The guy is a playmaker and he knows how to get it done on the grid-iron. The biggest concern I hear is whether or not his frame can hold up to the punishment. At 6-foot-1, 250 pounds, Marshall is bigger than Patrick Willis, the recently retired ILB of the San Francisco 49ers, who is considered to be the quintessential player for the position.
I’m not too worried about Marshall’s durability. The prospect of watching he and Danny Trevathan (health willing) line up together at inside linebacker is something any hardcore Broncos fanatic should get excited about.