Losing strong safety Tyvon Branch last season caused all kinds of problems. His replacement, Brandian Ross, was terrible and the Raiders defense suffered as a result. Ross is no longer with the team. Everyone was hopeful that the defensive unit would take a big step forward with Branch back and healthy. The unit was flat out awful for the first two weeks, but they finally put together a good game on Sunday against the Patriots.
Unfortunately, the team also lost Branch for an extended period of time due to a foot fracture.
So how do the Raiders replace Branch without having the massive dropoff they suffered last season? Sitting behind Branch on the depth chart is Usama Young, who played free safety for the Raiders last season. Besides Young the other option is seventh round pick Jonathan Dowling, who like Young can play both positions.
Young flashed some skill last season as a pass rusher, so putting him at strong safety full-time to replace Branch doesn’t seem like too bad of an idea. He has much more experience than Dowling and filled in admirably when called upon this past Sunday. He is a solid tackler but as a free safety, he is also not used to playing so close to the line of scrimmage. As the free safety he’s called upon to help more like a last line of defense, whereas playing strong safety means inserting himself into the run game much more.
The other option is to move some chess pieces around a bit. Woodson, who has been playing much more of the traditional center field free safety position this season, he has experience playing closer to the line of scrimmage. One of the things that’s made Woodson great is his run defense. All good defensive backs play well in the passing game — the truly special ones can do both. Everyone remembers when Woodson leaped over a Jaguars defender to tackle Maurice Jones-Drew in a play that earned him the nickname Super Woodson. By putting him at strong safety, the Raiders would be putting him in position to make more game-changing plays like that one.
While the depth chart says Young will start in place of Branch, it would not be a bad idea to have the wily vet play closer to the line, where he can make some big plays in place of Branch at strong safety. That would allow Young to play his more natural free safety position and keep Dowling as a backup for both spots. Many believe the Raiders should have moved Woodson to strong safety after Branch was hurt last season, so there’s a good chance the Raiders won’t do this even though it may be the better of the two options available to them.