The Best Play Nobody Noticed in 2011

While doing some PFF off-season work last week I came across a play that I missed completely during the season.

It took me a while to notice it, but when I did it stood out as one of the best plays I saw all season, and good enough that it was worth bringing attention to here.  It was made by a player who is fast becoming one of my favorite players to watch in the league, Tyvon Branch.

In Week 3 of the season the Raiders hosted the Jets.  Having taken the lead 7-0, the Raiders were presented with the Jets offense showing an empty backfield.  Mark Sanchez was in the shotgun, and Ladainian Tomlinson and Dustin Keller were split out as receivers, Keller wide right and Tomlinson in the slot to the left.  As Oakland tends to do, they locked up in man coverage with each of the five receivers the Jets had lined up.  They got even more aggressive when they decided to send Rolando McClain and Matt Giordano on a blitz off the right side along with the front four linemen.  This was an overload blitz, with six rushers coming and just five linemen blocking, but the Jets had the perfect play called to counter it.  The Raiders call left everybody in man coverage on an island with no help in behind, and if the blitz didn’t get there, anybody beaten badly was in trouble.

The play was a bubble screen to Ladainian Tomlinson who was able to use the body of D’Brickashaw Ferguson to shield Jerome Boyd from getting in on the play.  The Jets kicked their LG back and out to pick up the blitz while Ferguson quickly made his way out to block in the flat.  McClain was actually pretty quick at reading the screen when he saw Ferguson release out to get the block on Boyd, but he turned himself in circles chasing the play and ended up falling off the tackle 5-yards down field.   Things went from bad to worse, taking a turn for the catastrophic for Oakland as Joe Porter made a pretty ugly attempt at a tackle after coming off his man.

From that point Tomlinson was off to the races, with just Plaxico Burress and Chris Johnson out in front of him.  Johnson gets blocked to the inside by Plaxico, giving LT a clean run down the sideline to the end zone.  Johnson gives chase to try and make up for giving up the sideline but is knocked out of the play by Santonio Holmes at about the 15-yard line, before suddenly Tyvon Branch streaks into view and puts Tomlinson out of bounds inside the 5 yard line.

In and of itself it is quite a good play from Branch who showed some good hustle, but it isn’t until you ask the question “Hang on, where exactly did Branch come from?” that you see what a play it really was.

When the Jets split Dustin Keller out wide right, Tyvon Branch went with him in man coverage as he was much of the day.  The safety therefore became the left cornerback in this formation, on the far side of the field.  Because the Raiders were playing man coverage, Branch set up with inside leverage – i.e. lined up inside of Keller, showing him to the sideline – and turned that direction on release, running with him down the sideline and with his back to the play for the first ten yards.

By the time Branch sees what’s happening Tomlinson is crossing the Jets’ 45-yard line.  Branch himself is at the 50, but he is all the way on the far side of the field outside the numbers.  In the space of half the field he manages to run down Tomlinson and save the touchdown (at least for that play, the Jets would score two plays later from that position).

People talk about Ben Watson running down Champ Bailey years ago on an interception over the entire field.  Bailey was gassed and slowed, but it was still a great effort by Watson.  This may have been more impressive from Branch, because he covers such a massive distance across the field in only 50 yards of hash marks.

Neither of the commentators picked up on it at the time, neither did any of the PFF analysts when watching it live. It was only months after the fact when looking through at something else that myself and Ben Stockwell both asked the question “just where did Branch come from?” after watching the play.

This is one of the best plays of last season, and something coaches love to see on tape, and until now I’m not sure anybody outside of the Raiders’ meetings (if even there) picked up on it.

Great play Tyvon Branch.

As always thanks to PFF’s own Rick Drummond for the picture help.

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