Raiders safety Tyvon Branch will go nearly a year between football games that count. A fractured fibula from Week 2 last season started that drought and a slow-healing injury prolonged it again and again.
Branch remained on the 53-man roster most of the season in hope that one of just two returning starters could resume his post.
“I thought I was going to be able to play the last couple of weeks,” Branch said. “But just getting out there, I knew I couldn’t go out there and perform at the level I wanted to. And coach saw that when I got back. He told me to shut it down.”
It was a disappointment of the highest order, but a decision Branch considered just. He simply wasn’t ready for game action. To injured reserve he went, the final disappointment in an ultimately lost season.
He’s six months removed from that time, full of optimism and excitement following productive weeks in the offseason program.
“It’s definitely a blessing to just be able to get back out there on the field and do what I love to do,” Branch said. “So, yes, definitely a blessing to be back.”
The Raiders are happy to have him back. They missed his aggressive style, football smarts and big-play ability last season, without a replacement of quality at his strong safety spot.
[REWIND: Scott Bair's Raiders chat transcript]
Second-year pro Brandian Ross struggled at times, exposing a trouble spot in a defense that wore down as 2013 wore on. Branch hasn’t lost anything physically to the injury, and has an improved understanding on his role.
“He’s the same Tyvon that we’ve had here,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. “He comes out to work every day; he competes every day and I’ve seen some good things from him, just from understanding the system and what we’re trying to get accomplished and learning. I think he’s gotten better on some technique issues that he needs to work to improve on. If he continues to work the way that he has, I would expect that we’d have a good player in him.”
The Raiders should have a solid safety tandem with Branch and accomplished veteran Charles Woodson. The duo played one-plus regular season games together before Branch’s nasty injury, but the partnership could help both players excel.
“He’s more of a ball hawk than I am but I’m more of a hitter than he is, so we balance each other out,” Branch said. “We do things differently but we’re very versatile. We both can play inside outside, we both can play deep.”
Branch’s assignment-sound pass coverage could help Woodson break from playing deep every down. He played center field almost exclusively late in 2013. While he’ll still do a lot of that, Branch should give him greater freedom to attack.
“I think any time you lose a player of Tyvon’s ability, it does hinder you as far as what you can do,” Allen said. “But, we’re excited about having ‘Wood’ back. I think he brings a lot to the table. I think after having him for a year, we have a better feel for him, what he can really do well, and how we can put him in position to make plays.”
Branch should help him do that and vice versa. Those prospects, in addition to the excitement that comes from renewed health should make for a motivated strong safety heading into 2014.
“It’ll be great for (Tyvon), coming off the injury,” Woodson said. “You know he’s hungry, because when you miss time from this game, you get a chance to reflect on a lot of things. Having him back and having him be hungry, as I know he is, is going to be great for our defense.”