ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As far as sample sizes go, two weeks in September are not often considered to be of the set-in-stone variety.
But after two weeks, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall likes what he sees from the defense overall, from the linebackers as a group and what he has seen in his own play when he has looked at the game video. And it’s all part of the offseason tweaks that were made when Joe Woods was promoted to replace Wade Phillips as the Broncos' defensive coordinator.
Woods said early on plenty of what the Broncos would do on defense this season could be traced to Phillips’ scheme but that he was looking to “sprinkle some sugar" on it. Some of that meant getting the linebackers more involved.
“We got together in the offseason, the coaching staff, and went back and looked at the previous season," Woods said. “We looked at it from a scheme standpoint, a player standpoint and how we were coaching it, and we felt like we could be more aggressive, especially versus double-teams. We’re getting a lot of double-teams, and when the [linebackers] play downhill, it takes the double-team off of the D-linemen and frees them up."
Two games in and it’s been quite the success for the Broncos. They limited the Los Angeles Chargers to 64 yards rushing in the opener -- running back Melvin Gordon had 21 of those yards on the Chargers’ first play from scrimmage -- and the Broncos then held the Dallas Cowboys to 40 yards rushing this past Sunday.
And in that 42-17 victory over the Cowboys, the Broncos held Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL's 2016 rushing champ, to 8 yards on nine carries. At one point in the third quarter, after Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe tackled Elliott for a 5-yard loss, Elliott officially had zero yards rushing.
“Joe was out to let the dogs loose," Marshall said. “We’ve got great pass-rushers, fast guys on defense, and he trusts us. But there’s responsibility in that. You’ve got to be in the right spot, be where you’re supposed to be, and be a sure tackler."
Marshall and the rest of the Broncos defenders have nothing but football love for Phillips -- no question about that. Phillips and the Broncos put together one of the best-ever defensive seasons in the Super Bowl era in 2015 and the Broncos pounded their way to the title to close out that football year.
The rub is the encore didn't go quite as well, as the Broncos were 28th against the run last season, a rather significant blemish for a group that finished as the league’s top pass defense for the second consecutive year yet still missed the playoffs.
And personally, Marshall felt out of sorts on the field. He was proud of his work in the community -- he met with Denver’s police chief as well as officials from the police union to talk about use-of-force policies and donated money to local charities in the wake of his decision to kneel for the national anthem for the season’s first eight games -- but a hamstring injury in late October seemed to stall his momentum on the field, as he finished without a sack, an interception or forced fumble.
“On the field, I was frustrated; it just wasn’t there, then I got hurt," Marshall said. "I didn't make the plays I expect to make and I need to make."
He missed five games in all, including the last four of the season, and finished an uncharacteristic eighth on the team in tackles -- he had topped 100 tackles in both 2014 and 2015.
This time around, however, Marshall leads the team in tackles after two games, and the Broncos' defense has surrendered one rushing play of over 10 yards -- Gordon’s run on the first rushing play the team faced in the new season.
“Right now, our inside linebackers are doing a great job of doing that," Woods said. “Our defensive line is doing a great job of penetrating and controlling their gaps. The first two games were really good against the run."
“Just break to [the] ball, run fast," Marshall said. “Running and hitting and we might blitz more, who knows, but it’s a beautiful thing and we want to keep it that way."