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Rookie RM makes team history

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Spencer Larsen, left, became the first Bronco to start a game on offense and defense.

Spencer Larsen, left, became the first Bronco to start a game on offense and defense.

John Bazemore

Spencer Larsen keeps finding ways to make his rookie season interesting.

The Denver Broncos' linebacker-turned-fullback, one of 34 Latter-day Saints currently on NFL rosters, made team history during Sunday's 24-20 win over Atlanta.

In addition to Larsen, recent story lines involving Mormons in the NFL include two major contributors in Philadelphia, an emerging star in Baltimore and two returned missionaries seeing more opportunities in Buffalo.

Larsen, a University of Arizona product who was a sixth-round draft pick in April, was switched from linebacker to fullback last month. His play on special teams already had been garnering attention, and on Sunday he contributed to all three phases of the game for Denver (6-4).

According to the Associated Press, Larsen is the first Bronco player to start on offense and defense in the same game. On Sunday, the returned missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who served in Chile, started at middle linebacker as well as at fullback and on special teams. He finished the game with seven tackles.

The Denver coaching staff apparently kept the unprecedented move a secret during the week.

"They needed me on defense," Larsen told the AP. "We were real quiet about it. I was real excited about it, but I was able to keep my cool. It was fun and challenging. At fullback, you really know what to do, but at linebacker, it's a different world.

"I think it is cool. It's a great experience, and I credit the coaches for allowing me to do it. I think it's just the type of coaching staff that we have. (Denver coach Mike Shanahan) is always looking out for his players, and he knew that would be fun for me. It's great for him to allow me to do that."

Philadelphia (5-4-1) had to settle for a tie against the struggling Bengals on Sunday, but the Eagles are getting positive contributions from two LDS players from Utah. Linebacker Stewart Bradley, who played at Highland High School, has recorded 76 tackles in 10 games as a starter. Against Cincinnati, he had a team-high 10 tackles and a forced fumble.

On offense, Kevin Curtis, a returned missionary who played at Bingham High School and Utah State University, is back in the starting lineup after a sports-hernia injury kept him out for seven games. In the past three contests, he's had 19 catches for 217 yards.

In Baltimore, another Highland High alumnus, lineman Haloti Ngata, is earning the distinction of being an elite defensive player, according to Sports Illustrated's Bucky Brooks. Ngata is a former first-round draft pick who played collegiately at Oregon.

"As Pro Bowl votes are cast in the coming weeks, one name that should garner serious consideration is Haloti Ngata," Brooks wrote recently. "The third-year defensive tackle is having an outstanding season for the Ravens, leading one AFC scout to say, 'He is the most instinctive, athletic 300-pound tackle in the game.' "

The 6-4 Ravens had a difficult day Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, losing 30-10, but last week All-Pro tight end Todd Heap had his best game of the season. The Arizona State product caught two touchdown passes in a win over Houston — his first TDs of the season.

"It was a great feeling," Heap told the Baltimore Sun. "It was a point in the game we needed it, so that made it even more pretty."

In Buffalo, the struggling Bills are calling on two returned missionaries to help fill in some injury gaps. Brigham Young University graduate Ryan Denney, who served a mission in Argentina, has started the past five games at defensive end following an injury to starter Aaron Schobel. Denney responded with an 11-tackle effort against New England on Nov. 9.

Teammate Kirk Chambers, who played at Provo High and Stanford and served a mission in Germany, started his second game of the season on the offensive line against the Patriots. He did not start, however, in the Bills' 29-27 loss to Cleveland on Monday night.

Elsewhere, former Utah defensive back Eric Weddle, a starting safety for San Diego, had another solid game with 11 tackles in a loss to the Steelers. Weddle now has 78 tackles and an interception this season.

Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel, a BYU product, had one of his best games of the season in that same contest with seven tackles and a sack in the Steelers' 11-10 victory. Three weeks earlier, Keisel made headlines when he said that New York quarterback Eli Manning had tipped the Steelers' defense off on a play call that resulted in a failed fourth-down attempt at the goal line.

Cardinals defensive back Aaron Francisco made his third start of the season on Sunday in Arizona's 26-20 win over Seattle. The former Cougar had five tackles in last Monday's win over San Francisco.

Rookie linebacker Bryan Kehl, a returned missionary who played at BYU, made starts in Weeks 7 and 8 for the Giants but has gone without a tackle for the past three games.

Veteran linebacker Derek Smith, of American Fork High School, was released by the Chargers this past week.

In other news, Niners offensive lineman Eric Heitmann recently signed a contract extension through 2011.

E-mail: ashill@desnews.com