The 2011 Oakland Raiders Defense was bad... historically bad. And yet it had a tremendous amount of talent at all levels. There's athleticism to spare and even into week 17, the sports commentators could not but marvel at the "eyeball test" when the Raiders defense took the field.
But potentially the best of them all, the brightest spot of the Raiders season, and perhaps a superstar in the making is former 4th round pick, 5th year and Franchise-Tagged Player: Tyvon Branch. He has absolutely everything to both excel on the field and to endear him to fans. That his name is only whispered among fans in the know (who were hoping to pluck him away in this UFA year) or by NFL front office personnel is more an indictment of the Raiders as a team and the defense as a unit than Branch's abilities, skills, and performance.
Though Branch may be just a touch less than ideal size (listed at 6' 205), the man definitely plays above his weight class, is not afraid to use his body in any and all situations. Whether it be taking on a hulking pulling guard in the run game or covering a hummingbird-quick receiver in the passing game, he's up to the task and never backs down. More times than not, Ty is going to come out ahead.
You can imagine what Al Davis saw in him when he drafted the kid out of UConn in 2008 with the #100 overall pick (That #95 pick Reggie has to work with looks pretty good, doesn't it?). He saw a next generation defender, one who has those prized hybrid backfield talents.
He can play anywhere on the field. Deep half safety? He'll range from midfield to sideline and be the most dependable tackler back there. In-the-box safety? He thinks he's Aaron Curry and will go try to knock the spit out of the running back. Slot cover corner? He'll run and stay with the Dexter McCluster and Percy Harvin types. Blitz? Oh yeah. Here he comes at 100mph at the QB. Cover the Flex TE? He'll chuck and stay with Gronkowski or Gates. Need a Kick off returner to make a big play? Put him in coach and he'll take a kick 6 yards deep and run it 70+ yards.
And what will make you love him is what Rod Woodson had to say about him. "He plays at a speed you just can't teach." They have to tell him to SLOW DOWN in practice because the guy is running full speed all the time. He's also a worker. A hard-nosed, blue-collar, lunch-pail toting worker. He doesn't take plays off; he doesn't know how. Whatever he has, he's giving it on the field. Whatever he has, he gives it on the practice field. How can you not love that?
And he's still just learning how to play this game. In the near future, the light is going to come on and he's going to emerge. And when he does so, if Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver can use and feature him in the defense, he has a chance to become an absolute monster. An Ed Reed/Troy Polamalu-type Monster.
For that to all happen, there are many things that need to fall into place. Branch himself needs to learn when to slow down and when to speed up. There have been times that he's made mistakes because he's rushing a bit much, overpursuing and losing contain, not quite disciplined enough, or jumping too aggressively. What else needs to happen is that the defense has to perform as a unit; when the entire defense is functioning together and communicating well, we'll see each defensive player in a different light.
I absolutely love this guy and look for a fantastic career under Allen and Tarver.
In this clip, there are two plays that stand out to me and are my favorite plays.
(1) Defending the screen pass against the Texans. That play by the Texans was perfectly set up against our defense and looked to have gone the distance, but Tyvon avoids a block and makes the crucial tackle. It's not as Sportscenter-highlight worthy as a "Big Hit", but it was a critical play in this game. Here's a link to a breakdown of that play from my blog [http://www.raiders.ninjagoro.com/?p=346]
(2) Against the Jets, Branch is lined up on an outside receiver. Sanchez throws a screen pass to LDT, who breaks away from would-be tacklers and gets into the open. From out of nowhere, Tyvon Branch comes racing up and pushes LDT out of bounds, saving the TD. Sanchez would eventually bootleg in for the TD, but this play affirms what kind of effort (and speed) the man has.