Watching Brandon Marshall last night at NRG Stadium in Houston, you would never know he was coming off an offseason surgery that resulted in two screws in his foot. Marshall missed all of offseason training activities, relegated to spectator/student status. He could watch the Denver Broncos defense practice and install Wade Phillips' new 3-4 defense, and study in the classroom, but he could not participate out on the grass.
Over the last week, Marshall's rehab had progressed enough for the Broncos training staff to upgrade him to full participation in practice. His inside linebacker partner, Danny Trevathan, was also able to practice almost fully. Trevathan is still a little bit behind Marshall in his recovery, but Gary Kubiak expects the fourth-year pro to debut in preseason action soon.
It can be difficult for a player coming off a significant injury to cut loose and perform on the field without inhibition. Last week, Marshall talked about the mindset he's trying to cultivate when he's out on the field in a live game.
“That’s one thing that [ILB] Danny [Trevathan] and I talked about," Marshall said Thursday. "I told Danny yesterday, ‘If we’re hurting, if we’re going to be out there, we have to have confidence. We have to be able to just go,’ because if you’re out there thinking about the injury, you might as well sit on the sideline because you’re not going to be effective and you might hurt yourself again.”
Watching Marshall play vs. the Houston Texans on Saturday night, he showed no signs of being held back by his foot. He was his typical playmaking self, always around the ball. He finished the night with three tackles, all solo, and two passes defensed. I hunkered down in the film room to evaluate the few snaps he saw in Houston.
It's important to remember that not only did Marshall make his 2015 debut last night, coming off an injury, it was also his first time playing the 'Mike' inside linebacker spot in Phillips' 3-4. Let's take a look at how he measured up.
All animated images via NFL Game Pass.
Play No. 1
Ryan Mallett and the Texans offense are in 12-personnel (two TE). The Broncos are in base defense, with Marshall playing the 'Mike'. SS T.J. Ward creeps down into the box right before the snap, giving the Broncos eight men in the box. It's a handoff to Alfred Blue.
The Texans RG pulls to lead block through the 'A' gap. He seals off the Broncos 'Mo' ILB Steven Johnson, giving Blue a crease between the center and LG. Marshall is tasked with taking on the LG, who's gotten to the second level. Marshall stands him up, sheds the block and makes the tackle.
This play went for eight yards because it was well blocked by Texans. But, what we see here is Marshall having no problem contending with a 300-pound interior O-lineman in the hole. He stacks and sheds and makes the tackle. The concern that Marshall, a career 'Will' LB, would struggle to get off blocks in the trenches, is alleviated here. He can get it done.
Play No. 2
Mallet is in the shotgun, with three WR split left in a cluster. It's third-and-5 and the Broncos are in their 'big nickel' sub-package, with Ward lined up over the TE split right and Marshall giving Mallet an overload look over Shaquil Barrett's outside shoulder. The Broncos DBs are showing a press-man look pre-snap.
The play is clearly drawn up to go to RB Blue out of the backfield. Instead of blitzing, Marshall follows Blue out of the backfield toward the right sideline. The TE tries to pick Marshall off, to give Blue some separation. But Marshall is savvy in coverage and fights through the pick and despite a nice throw by Mallet, punches the ball out of Blue's hands at the high-point.
Marshall proved in 2014 that he is an underrated coverage linebacker. Saturday night in Houston, he built on that reputation, not relinquishing a single reception.
Play No. 3
The Texans are in 12-personnel, with one TE in-line next to the RT and one split out right. The Broncos are in base defense. This play was covered beautifully by both ILBs, Johnson and Marshall.
Marshall reads the QB's eyes and jumps the route to the TE, narrowly missing the interception. Had he missed the ball, Ward was there to help over-top. Here we not only see Marshall's athleticism, but also his ability to read the QB and play the mental long-game.
You can believe that Mallet made sure he knew where Marshall was before each play from there on out. Does this look like a guy encumered by injury?
Play No. 4
It's second-and-10 and Mallet is in the shotgun in 10-personnel, with Blue next to him. The Broncos are playing light in their 'dime' sub-package. Marshall is the only ILB on the field, showing a blitz off the 'B' gap on the defensive left side. The Broncos DBs are showing press-coverage, close to their assignments on the line of scrimmage.
The play is a dive up the gut, off the LG, with the RG pulling once again. Marshall quickly diagnoses and flies over from the other side of the LOS. Again, he's tasked with taking on a big interior O-lineman and again he stands him up, sheds the block and makes the tackle insdie the hole, limiting the play to just a three-yard gain.
Play No. 5
It's first-and-10 and the Texans are have two WRs split out on each side. Mallet is under center. The Broncos are in their 'dime' sub-package, with six DBs. Kayvon Webster is in the defensive left slot.
Phillips calls a double slot blitz. Both Chris Harris, Jr. and Webster blitz off the edge untouched. The Texans are ready to take advantage of the Broncos aggression, with the draw play to Blue. The RB shoots by Webster and into space. Marshall squares him up and despite a nice juke by the RB, makes the open-field tackle. Add another notch on Marshall's belt.
Marshall only played the first quarter. But his impact was immense. Pro Football Focus credited him with a +2.7 cumulative grade, which is phenomenal, considering he only played 16 snaps. Marshall's performance in Houston nipped the concerns of whether he has the frame to hold up as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 in the bud. I'm really looking forward to seeing him on the field with Trevathan. Hopefully, we'll see them in tandem next week at home vs. the San Francisco 49ers.
To get instant Broncos notifications, download the NEW Scout mobile app for iOS HERE!
Be sure to check out the ever-growing benefit package of being a Mile High Huddle Insider! Check it out HERE.