Strong safety Tyvon Branch practiced Wednesday for the first time since suffering ankle and leg injuries in Week 2. That’s significantly good news for the Oakland Raiders, who have had major problems at the back end of their pass defense most of the season.
Since entering the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick in 2008, Branch has developed into Oakland’s best defensive back and one of the top safeties in the NFL. He was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2011 and made a career-best 146 tackles in 2012.
Not surprisingly, the Raiders have sorely missed Branch in the secondary.
Brandian Ross, a converted cornerback who took over when Branch got hurt playing against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sept. 15, has struggled to fill the gap. He’s been beaten for five touchdowns this season and has routinely graded out as the Raiders’ worst defensive back according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Ross has also not provided much support defending the run, an area where Branch has excelled throughout his career. Branch, who turns 27 on Dec. 11, is not only Oakland’s top defensive back, he’s also one of the team’s most sure-handed tacklers.
That’s why there was a noticeable buzz inside Oakland’s locker room after Branch completed his first practice in nearly three months.
“Anytime you lose a player of Tyvon’s ability and the way that he plays the game … that’s a tough guy to replace,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said Wednesday. “Just getting him back on the field I think’s a big boost obviously to him but to all of us.”
Branch moved around well in the crisp conditions, even though he was limited in what he was allowed to do. He appeared rusty and stiff at times, but otherwise was fine.
Later, when talking to reporters, Branch said he’s eager to get back on the field even if it is just for the final four games of the regular season.
Exactly what type of injury Branch had is uncertain. There were reports he suffered a fractured fibula, but the Raiders listed it as an injured ankle.
Both Allen and Branch again declined to discuss the nature of the injury, though let it slip that it was his leg that was hurt.
“If my leg holds up I can make an impact,” Branch said. “That’s part of my game, coming in and making plays. So if I have a chance to come out and make some plays, I want to. I want to be out there so I’m going to push it to the limit and whatever happens, happens.”
Branch’s presence in the lineup might not be a big deal this week when the Raiders play the New York Jets, who are dead last in the NFL in passing. After that, though, Oakland faces in succession San Diego’s Philip Rivers, Kansas City’s Alex Smith and Denver’s Peyton Manning.
The Raiders insist they won’t rush Branch back, but it’s obvious they’re keeping their fingers crossed.
“If he’s healthy enough to play, he’ll play,” Allen said. “I think that’s what we’ve gotta do as we watch him practice this week (is) see where he’s at physically and can he go out and play at a high level in an NFL football game. If he can do that then he’ll play.
“When he shows that he can play the game of football and play it at a level we need him to play at then he’ll be ready to go."
All information and quotes used in this article, and any report by Michael Wagaman, were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.