The Oakland Raiders enter their first full season without Al Davis at the controls, and as such, the team is in the midst of a major overhaul, both in terms of playing personnel and in the front office. Things seem to be heading in the right direction judging by the decisions that have been made this offseason and the good news is that the current roster does have a lot of talent, even if it is in need of some major patchwork in spots.
The team said goodbye to Nnamdi Asomugha last offseason and Stanford Routt just a couple of months ago, leaving them with a stable of cornerbacks with minimal experience or fanfare surrounding them, but they do have some interesting players elsewhere in the defensive backfield, including the focus of our article.
Tyvon Branch has been a jack-of-all-trades for Oakland, and has emerged as a force against the run, as well as being one of a very few number of defenders that can hope to match up against some of the freakish athletes that NFL offenses are deploying from the tight end position these days. Tyvon Branch is Oakland’s Secret Superstar.
The Tale of Tyvon
Despite being selected in the fourth round (the 100th overall pick in the 2008 draft) Branch was actually only Oakland’s second selection of that draft, after they took Darren McFadden fourth overall. The Raiders were looking not only for secondary help, but also for a replacement for their all-time kick return leader, Chris Carr, who had just departed for Baltimore as an unrestricted free agent. Branch was supposed to add value as a returner, but to date his career in that regard is just eight returns and a fumble old, with one more for negative yardage as a punt return man. As a replacement for Chris Carr in the return game, Branch has been a complete let down. Luckily, however, as a replacement for Carr in the Oakland defense, Branch has been a revelation.
As a rookie he saw just 61 snaps on defense, but in his second season he was installed as a starter and his 1051 snaps were 72 more than any other Raiders defensive back. His 96 tackles and 47 defensive stops were each one short of the league lead amongst safeties, both held by Denver’s Brian Dawkins, and though he failed to record an interception, he did break up six passes and allow just 46.8% of targets when he was in primary coverage to be complete.
In 2010, he ranked in the Top 10 among safeties for tackles and in the Top 5 for defensive stops. In 2011 he was again in the Top 10 for both categories as he became a force as an in-the-box safety, and has now started the last 48 consecutive games.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
If there is an issue with Branch’s play over the past few seasons it’s when he is in coverage, but only when he has been put in tough spots by the Raiders–something that will likely become less of an issue now with the new regime. Branch is at his best as an in-the-box safety, and his strength is man coverage, but the Raiders would match him up in the slot in their sub-packages against legitimate wide receivers. This may have been a reflection of how confident they were in his coverage ability, but that is a tough ask for a safety, and it came back to punish them all too often. Similarly, he has been exposed at times when expected to play a deep zone, something that does not fit his strengths.
Where Branch does excel in coverage is when matched up man-to-man, against tight ends in particular … a trait most coaches would kill for, given the rise of freakish tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Antonio Gates. His ability to man up with these weapons is a skill few players in the NFL have. Rob Gronkowski set single season NFL records in 2011 for touchdowns and yardage for a tight end, and outside of the Raiders game he averaged 6 receptions for 88 yards and a touchdown. On four targets into Branch’s coverage in their Week 4 game, Gronkowski came away with just a single catch for 15 yards, while Branch notched himself a ‘pass defensed’ on one of the incompletions.
In two games against the Chargers, Antonio Gates didn’t have a catch to his name when covered by Branch, and he also blanked Dustin Keller, allowed Owen Daniels just a single catch for nine yards, and held Kyle Rudolph to a lone catch for negative yardage in their encounters last season.
Kryptonite at the Ready?
The NFL is a copycat league, and with the explosions in production from the likes of Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Jimmy Graham, teams can expect to see a steady dose of that type of player in 2012 and beyond. Those players put an enormous amount of stress on a defense, because they are extremely tough to match up with. Defensive backs rarely have the strength, and linebackers don’t have the speed and athleticism. In Tyvon Branch the Raiders might already have the answer in house, the kryptonite to the new breed of Super athlete.
Branch has shown already he has the cover skills to take these players out of the game, and he may have the best man-cover skills of any safety playing at the moment. His 2011 season proved he could be a factor, but 2012 could be the year he changes the way teams play when they come to face the Raiders. For that reason Tyvon Branch is Oakland’s Secret Superstar.