For the second time this free agency, the Raiders addressed the linebacker position after adding former Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict. Newly added Brandon Marshall has played linebacker at a high level in the AFC West. His play however dropped off in 2018 and eventually rookie linebacker Josie Jewell took over his starting spot in the Bronco defense.
The 8th year veteran is solid in pass coverage but struggled to impact the run game in 2018. His ability to disengage blockers took a dive this past season. Posting 42 total tackles in 2018 was by far his worst production since entering the starting line-up for Denver in 2014. Let’s take a look at his strengths and weaknesses and where he projects in the Raiders defense.
Marshall has played in a 3-4 defense for several seasons in Denver. There are two inside linebacker positions in a 3-4; one plays over an uncovered lineman and the other is “protected” in the front meaning there are no uncovered lineman in front of him. NFL defensive coordinators can assign each linebacker a primary role but with so many change of strength motions and shifts, both linebackers will inevitably have to play each of these positions.
Brandon Marshall for the most part was the protected man in the front which is more analogous to the weakside linebacker in Paul Guenther’s 4-3 defense. But the times when he played over an uncovered lineman wasn’t pretty. See week 2 of last season against Oakland.
The play above is an inside zone to the left. Marshall is lined up on the left hash and in front of him is Kelechi Osemele who is uncovered. Osemele takes a lateral step momentarily helping Rodney Hudson secure his block against the nose guard before climbing to the second level and putting Brandon Marshall on the ground. Plays like this show why Marshall should be the protected man in a front.
Denver starting inside linebacker Todd Davis is usually the linebacker who handles the role of taking on guards in the run game while Marshall plays over the 3 technique. When Todd Davis goes down due to injury in week 5 against the Jets a rookie comes in and Marshall again finds himself being asked to take on guards as the unprotected linebacker in the front.
The results were a career day for one new Raider...but not Marshall. Running back Isaiah Crowell thundered for 219 yards against the Broncos after Davis went down. The play above shows Marshall in the B gap. When the ball is snapped he engages the left guard but doesn’t keep his outside arm and leg free in the gap, thereby giving up gap integrity and allowing Crowell to pick up 10 yards.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Marshall in the run game. Raiders fans know during the past few seasons Marshall has the ability to shoot gaps and make plays around the line of scrimmage. Like this play against the eventual Super Bowl runner-ups and statistically one of the best rushing teams in the NFL this past season.
This time Marshall has two defensive lineman in front of him occupying blockers and he is able to take the backdoor and tackle Todd Gurley attempting a cutback. In a 3-4 defense, linebackers must be able to handle both inside linebacker roles but in a 4-3 its much easier to scheme a linebacker into a protected role. Expect Marshall to compete with Tahir Whitehead for the weakside linebacker job.
Marshall has shown pass coverage is a strength during his career. He has handled multiple coverage responsibilities including pattern matching zones in nickel defense, man coverage on backs and TE’s, and covering the deep hole in cover 2. But his work against TE’s is what should make Raiders fans excited about his arrival.
In 2017 against the Super Bowl champion Eagles, Marshall breaks on this “spot” route by TE Brent Celek. Marshall is in zone coverage and makes a play on this pass when the receiver runs through his zone. His reaction time is instant and he drives off his left foot at the same exact time the TE is getting out of his break.
Making this type of play isn’t all talent, it takes film study and understanding of the situation. Marshall puts it all together in this example to come away with a pass deflection.
2018 might have been a down year for Marshall but he showed he could still hang with the best TE in coverage . Lined up on the right hash, Marshall is in man coverage on Kelce. We know this because his eyes never leave the TE and he is using a “catch” technique where he’ll bounce his feet to mirror the receivers release before re-routing him at 5 yards.
The best part of this play is Kelce is actually able to avoid the collision at the top of his route and makes Marshall open his hips upfield to defend a deep route. But when Kelce runs an outside breaking curl route, the linebacker is able to recover and come away with a pass deflection.
Later in the season Marshall makes another play against Kelce. This time the Broncos are in a 2 high coverage out of nickel personnel. Marshall’s job is to defend the middle of the field against the number 3 receiver and prevent the quarterback from making an easy throw between the two deep safeties.
The number 3 receiver in this case is Travis Kelce and Marshall, lined up on the left hash, makes Kelce run around him before breaking towards the middle of the field. Marshall flips his hips and eyes around and is able to impact this play for an incompletion.
Marshall had a down year in 2018. The Raiders are hoping that was an aberration and he can rejuvenate his career in Silver and Black. Keep in mind, the Broncos were satisfied enough with a 5th round rookie’s performance at linebacker to let Marshall walk this off-season. It’s possible his lack of physicality against the run could have been injury related and he is recovered enough to be a 3 down linebacker. At worst he can come in on passing downs and help the defense solve one of their biggest problems going back several years: covering TEs.