This week I’ve been looking at potential defensive backs that could interest the Washington Commanders in this month’s NFL draft. Joey Porter Jr is a name frequently linked with Washington in mock drafts so I broke down his game earlier this week and then yesterday offered an alternative in Emmanuel Forbes, who could be a better fit for the Commanders schematically.
Today I’m going to continue with the theme of defensive backs but with a different profile of defensive back. Both Porter and Forbes are primarily outside corners, though Forbes could play some slot in the NFL. The Commanders do have two capable starting corners in Kendall Fuller and Benjamin St-Juste that both have played slot but both are better suited to playing on the perimeter. So could a slot cornerback be a potential bigger need for Washington?
Enter Alabama’s Brian Branch. Branch is an incredibly versatile defensive back that played slot cornerback, safety and dime linebacker for one of the most demanding coaches in college football last season. If that sounds familiar to Washington fans, it’s because Kam Curl has done all of those things and more at various times for the Commanders over the last few years. He’s had such a heavy workload and Washington could really use with finding someone to take some of that workload off him. Branch is certainly capable of doing that.
What stands out immediately with Branch is how well he understands the entirety of the defensive structure on every play, rather than just his role with it. This shouldn’t be surprising given the number of roles he was asked to play, but it's immediately clear that Branch has a high football IQ and understands where his help is, where the weaknesses are within the scheme and where he can help others.
On this play, Branch initially aligns over the slot receiver at about six yards of depth from the line of scrimmage with outside leverage. He takes that outside leverage knowing he has a safety inside to help him while the cornerback outside is occupied, so he wants to prevent anything going outside and funnel the receiver inside to the safety. As the ball is snapped, Branch maintains his outside leverage while reading the slot receiver. As the receiver breaks off his route, Branch begins to drive down on it, but gets his eyes on the quarterback to try and locate the ball.
That’s when he notices the ball hasn’t yet been thrown and in fact, the quarterback is actually looking outside rather than to the slot. With the safety bracketing the slot receiver and ready to drive down on that route, Branch knows he has the freedom to work outside and try to jump that route. He breaks on the ball before the quarterback has even released the throw, which enables him to get there in front of the receiver and intercept the pass.
Branch is very good at playing from off and being able to see the field. He can read releases of receivers and anticipate routes while also having an eye on the quarterback to see where he wants to go with the ball. That combination enables him to take away routes and force the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer, giving the pass rush more of a chance to get a sack.
Here, Tennessee split two receivers wide outside the numbers to the right. Branch initially aligns about seven or eight yards off the slot receiver, but Tennessee then motions the outside receiver into a stacked set just before the snap. This can easily cause confusion for defenders as they have to quickly communicate how they want to handle the stacked set. Some teams will have both corners sink to off coverage and match the coverage to the release of the routes, others will have the corners lock onto their original receivers. Here though, Alabama has the outside corner lock onto the point man of the bunch, who was initially the slot receiver.
For Branch, this means at a moment's notice, his assignment changed from the slot receiver to the receiver that initially aligned outside. This could get some defenders flustered, but Branch calmly reads the release of the receiver and anticipates his route breaking outside. He also has an eye on the quarterback, who is looking over to that side and wanting to throw the quick out to that receiver. Branch breaks on the route before the receiver makes his cut, showing great anticipation that completely takes the route away from the quarterback. That forces the quarterback to rethink as he holds onto the ball for an extra second while he adjusts to find his next read. In that time, the Alabama pass rush manages to get home and sack the quarterback, all thanks to Branch anticipating and taking away his first read.
Branch isn’t concerned about motions and receivers switching their releases after the snap. Alabama plays a lot of match coverage concepts where defenders are trained to read the releases of multiple receivers at the snap and adjust their coverage accordingly.
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