DENVER —** Long before we saw Brandon Marshall make his momentous goal-line stand stopping Andrew Luck on fourth down, he was stuck in a tough spot trying to figure out where his NFL career was headed on the practice squad.
After Marshall was cut for the third time by the Jacksonville Jaguars in August of 2013, he had to find new surroundings. Jacksonville had drafted him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, but they wavered on retaining him, shuffling him off and on their practice squad before cutting ties a year later.
Looking at a spot on a practice squad for one of two teams — Denver or Oakland — Marshall looked for advice from an old friend: Terrance Knighton.
Knighton had been on the Jaguars with Marshall before he left for greener pastures in Denver, and Marshall wanted to get the skinny on playing in their defense before making a choice.
"I said 'Come to Denver. Just come in, work hard, do what you gotta do,'" Knighton recalled. "'You're going to be on practice squad, but work your way up to the active roster.'"
The move has paid dividends for Marshall, who has been forced to acclimate quickly in a big-time starting position with the knee injury to starting linebacker Danny Trevathan. To Marshall's credit, he's played pretty admirably, though much of what we've seen this season in that starting role has been in the preseason. But his solid preseason play looked like it carried over to the first regular season game.
Marshall totaled 10 tackles (eight solo), including two for loss and one pass deflection.
The biggest of those was the aforementioned defensive stop with mere feet separating Andrew Luck from the end zone on fourth down in the third quarter. Refused easy entry on his initial effort to sneak across the goal line, Luck bounced back and tried to muster up a second endeavor. But Marshall wasn't going to wait for that. He met Luck behind the line of scrimmage and downed him for a short loss that forced the Colts into turning the ball over on downs.
"We knew they were going to try to sneak," Marshall said. "They got a big quarterback. The guy's like 235, 240 so we got in our little sneak formation and the guy bounced right to me and I made the play."
Luck's mobility and size has made his ability to pick up yards on the ground notorious for defenses preparing to play him.
At 235 pounds, Luck can pick up some steam when his legs start churning. But Marshall is 242 pounds and with Luck struggling to keep his forward momentum, the linebacker easily wrapped him up.
That wasn't all Marshall did, of course. As part of the corps of linebackers, Marshall's play was instrumental in helping control Indianapolis' run game, which was held to 54 total yards.
The defense, which relentlessly put the clamps on the Colts' offense in the first half, unfortunately relented in giving up big offensive plays in the fourth quarter. Such is the danger in playing against Luck, who led the Colts to a playoff comeback victory in January after being down 28 points against the Chiefs.
"We saw what he did in the playoffs," Marshall said of Luck after Sunday's game. "He came back from a huge deficit. That's just the ebbs and flows of every game. They have a great team. You know, they're getting paid as well. We just have to keep fighting and try to finish."
Check out the best shots from Sunday night's game between the Broncos and Colts.
Finish they did, though it was not without drama. With Luck mounting another comeback bid trying to march Indianapolis to the end zone for a tying touchdown with under three minutes left in the game, the defense had to make one last stop to seal the win. The Colts had gotten into enemy territory, but they couldn't convert in their last four attempts, failing to connect on a last gasp that was defended perfectly by cornerback Bradley Roby.
It takes an entire team to step up together to close out a game like that. The team got impact performances at all positions on defense: The defensive line brought pressure on the quarterback and helped contain the Colts' rushing attack. The secondary forced turnovers and covered well. It was an all-around great defensive effort against a very strong passing offense. For his part, Marshall, too, has stepped up his play in proportion to his new role as a starter. It's one that requires a lot of confidence, but he's put in the work to back it up.
"When I'm out there, I just got to believe I'm the best player on the field. Whether it's the case or not, you have to know that or you have to believe that in yourself," he said. "You have to have this confidence in you that you're the best out there. I work like it, so I have to believe it. I go out there to try to give it perfect effort and hopefully I'll have many more games like this, but better than this because I thought I could have played better."
Regardless, that kind of game in a prime-time season opener is a very respectable start to build upon for Marshall.
Busting your butt under the bright lights before a roaring crowd and NBC's cameras just makes that 2013 phone call with Terrance Knighton about a practice squad spot seem all the more distant, yet all the more significant.
"He said, 'You'll love it here and you'll do well.' I believed him," Marshall said.
"I got on the flight the next day, and now I'm here."