Defensive End Game: Branch’s Injury Creates Opportunity
By Bess Shapiro
Oakland Raiders veteran strong safety Tyvon Branch is out indefinitely with a serious leg injury. Considering the Raiders are in re-building mode trying to improve upon a 4-12 record, this is not good news. In a complete reversal from a year ago, the AFC West is actually one of the best divisions in the league--at the moment. The Raiders are 1-1, and the defense has a lot to do with it. Branch’s absence, while a setback, may provide an incentive for the Raiders to overcome adversity and win. The face their biggest divisional challenge in the Denver Broncos, but keeping the other team from scoring gives the Raiders their best shot at keeping it close.
When Branch went down, free safeties Charles Woodson and Usama Young stepped up big time. Woodson, who had been relatively quiet in the first game and in the pre-season, exploded against the Jaguars. His coverage was tight in the secondary and he had six tackles some for no gain. With Branch hurt, Young has his greatest opportunity. His speed is a key component. Young came up twice from his free safety position and sacked quarterback Chad Henne. Both will need to keep up the intensity for the foreseeable future.
In his fourth year and one of two—Branch being the other—original starters on the defense, defensive end Lamarr Houston shows no signs of slowing down. He’s hit the quarterback twice in the last two games and had sacked Colts QB Andrew Luck. He’s had five combined tackles including one for a loss. DE Jason Hunter is another veteran who’s keeping up the pressure. He had sacks against both Luck and the Jags Chad Henne. With Pat Sims back in the game—six combined tackles and one for a loss—the D-line looks as good as it’s ever been. The Raiders appear to have the beginnings of a pass rush.
Linebacker’s Nick Roach and Kevin Burnett are stepping up big time to fill the shoes of Miles Burris. Both veterans, they’ve posted identical stats with nine combined tackles including five solo tackles. Roach had one tackle for a five yard loss against the Colts, and Burnett nearly picked one off. The pressure they’ve brought to bear has helped collapse pockets and stop the run.
CB Tracy Porter has been a presence all over the field. With 10 combined tackles and a sack, his coverage has been almost perfect defending against the pass. He came up huge against the Jaguars, jumping routes and knocking down passes. General Manager Reggie Rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden has had some good plays, but his lack of play in the pre-season means he will not be the high impact player that one expects of a first round draft pick. Porter and Mike Jenkins will be able to carry the load until Hayden gets into a groove, probably in the latter half of the season.