INDIANAPOLIS — Marvell Tell’s open-field tackle last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers was almost literally by the book.
The Indianapolis Colts rookie cornerback made a mistake in a similar situation the week before against the Denver Broncos, and the coaches harped on him about it all week.
Maintain leverage on the edge and force the football toward the middle of the field.
This time around, Tell was precisely where he was supposed to be, and he forced a fumble that was recovered deep in Pittsburgh territory by defensive end Justin Houston.
“In terms of positioning on the tackle — we teach the hamstring tackle here where the top of our shoulder pads want to be at waist level,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “We want to drive through the hips of the man. We want to do a good job of wrapping through the hamstrings in three hard steps with our feet, and I think he did all those things.
“When he was doing that, he had his helmet on the football, and the ball came out. He was being physical on that play. Justin had done a good job of dropping into coverage on that particular third down, and he did a nice job of hustling but also had the insight to know where the sideline was and then to also get onto the ball before it went out of bounds or part of his body was out of bounds. It was a nice play all together, and the guys did a nice job.”
It’s also a sign of Tell’s progress.
A safety at USC, several teams looked at his size (6-foot-2, 198 pounds) and length and saw a cornerback at the next level. Colts defensive backs coach Jonathan Gannon made a predraft visit to Los Angeles to personally work out Tell, and he came away impressed.
Indianapolis pulled the trigger on Tell in the fifth round of last spring’s draft, envisioning a role as a special teams contributor with upside as a defender.
It took three weeks for Tell to even make the active game day roster, and he played just three snaps on defense in the season’s first six games.
But in the last two weeks, Tell has played a total of 74 snaps. He was on the field for 59 percent of the defensive plays against the Steelers, and his forced fumble briefly changed the game.
The Colts converted the turnover into a 4-yard touchdown pass from Brian Hoyer to wide receiver Chester Rogers and a 24-23 lead with 8:43 remaining in the game.
But Tell also was instrumental in Pittsburgh’s ensuing drive. He drew a pass interference penalty at the 7-yard line that set up what proved to be the Steelers’ game-winning field goal.
So he remains a work in progress, though one with obvious potential.
“I’m climbing,” Tell said of his play in the last two weeks. “I can’t give myself a letter grade right now. I just say I’m continuing to progress, and I’ve gotta keep on that trend.”
He’s the latest defensive back to step in and play a major role for a team racked by injuries in the secondary this fall. Cornerback Pierre Desir has missed the past two weeks with a hamstring injury, and rookie Rock Ya-Sin has moved up to the No. 2 starter behind veteran Kenny Moore II.
That’s left Tell as the No. 3 corner. He comes into the nickel package as an outside defender with Moore moving into the slot.
There have been ups and downs, as should be expected, but there have been few passes given to account for Tell’s youth.
He’s only been playing corner since April, but he’s held to the same standard as any other defender when he takes the field.
“I don’t really think he was thrown in the fire,” Moore said. “It’s just expected. If he’s not supposed to play now, then when is he supposed to play? When is it when a guy grows up? And he’s ready.
“It’s nothing like he’s not ready, but (he’s) just a rookie learning on how to be an NFL football player, and he’s doing a great job.”
Tell said vets like Moore and Desir have constantly made themselves available to answer questions and offer advice. And he’s leaned on that counsel throughout the season.
But he’s carved out his current role for himself.
The coaching staff has made it clear playing time is earned on the practice field, and that’s where Tell’s growth began.
“Just being bought in, first of all, first and foremost,” Moore said of Tell’s improvement. “Because it starts in practice. He’s doing a great job practicing and clearing up mistakes and being a good football player, and I like that about him.”
Tell is far from a finished product.
He gets too handsy at times in his coverage, and he’s still perfecting his technique.
But he’s come a long way in a very short time.
And it creates intrigue about how much further he can climb.
“I feel like the sky’s the limit for myself,” Tell said. “So I just continue to work every day.”