INDIANAPOLIS —"Give me him."
When the Indianapolis Colts began preparations for their Week 10 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that was Rashaan Melvin's request.
The cornerback wanted — no, needed — to be matched up against Antonio Brown, arguably the league's top wide receiver.
Last season, Brown torched the Colts to the tune of six catches for 91 yards and three touchdowns in Pittsburgh's 21-point victory on Thanksgiving Night, but if Melvin could get his wish this time around, he was confident there would be no encore performance.
Melvin stayed true to his word, as he blanketed Brown throughout the afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium, holding the league's leading receiver to just three receptions for 47 yards and no touchdowns in the Colts' near-upset of the AFC North Division leading Steelers.
It was just the latest in a long string of standout performances for Melvin, whose availability has been just as key as a vastly improved skillset in what has been a career year for the fifth-year Northern Illinois product.
"The guy has come a long way," head coach Chuck Pagano said of Melvin. "He works, he practices, he prepares, he grinds, he puts the time in. Then, he goes and competes his tail off. I mean he doesn't say boo. He's smart and he's tough. He's got all the athleticism and stuff like that, but the guy is a competitor – a top competitor. I'm really proud of that guy."
'You have to be healthy'
The Colts signed Melvin out of necessity early last season, after the team saw its top three cornerbacks go down with injuries.
To that point in his career, Melvin had been a true National Football League journeyman. He went undrafted in 2013, and was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that spring. Since that time, he has spent time on various rosters and practice squads, including the Buccaneers, the Miami Dolphins, then the Baltimore Ravens, then the New England Patriots and then back to the Dolphins before his release during final cuts last season.
Hamstring and ankle injuries, which would see Melvin placed on injured reserve on two different occasions, certainly wouldn't help his chances of securing a more long-term roster spot, and they also hindered his ability to properly train during the offseason.
"To be able to play football at a high level you have to be healthy," Melvin said.
When Melvin got to the Colts last season, however, he took full advantage. Initially signed as a free agent to fill in some gaps due to injuries, Melvin would end up playing in 15 games with nine starts, registering 58 tackles (one for a loss) with seven passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
But over the offseason, the Colts used their second-round pick to take a cornerback, Quincy Wilson, out of the University of Florida. With Vontae Davis still locked in as the team's No. 1 corner, it looked as though Melvin would possibly need to settle for a backup role heading into 2017.
Melvin only worked harder.
And by training camp, it was clear: Melvin was going to be in the Colts' starting lineup come Week 1 of the regular season.
By the midway point of the season, he had become the team's top cornerback.
"Rashaan is a pro's pro," Colts defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said. "He knows his body. He knows the system and he knows how to help guys along. He has absolutely no reservation doing that. He's going to help build those guys up. The young guys that are fighting for reps, at some point they're all going to be healthy and they're all going to have more experience and he's going to be in direct competition with those guys. But he doesn't care. All he cares about is us winning."
Melvin's knack for knocking passes to the turf has put him among the league leaders in that category this season. He entered the bye week last week with 12 passes defensed, ranking fourth in the NFL.
Melvin enters Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans with 31 tackles (one for a loss), while his two interceptions on the year both came during critical junctions of the Colts' Week 3 victory over the Cleveland Browns at Lucas Oil Stadium.
After seeing "glimpses" of brilliance last season, Pagano said Melvin's time on task — his unending thirst to get better and take on the toughest assignments week after week — has allowed him to blossom in 2017.
"Then, you gain confidence as you go," Pagano said. "He trusts himself and he trusts his technique and he trusts his ability."
"As a fifth-year guy, I've just been around the league and seen so many things, seen so many players come and go in the NFL and even in this locker room," Melvin said. "…We have guys down on this football team, and fortunately I'm able to stay healthy for as long as I can. It's been a huge part of my success, and it's about being on the football field, being able to be out there and compete and learn and get better."