*Includes all games minus Week 10, Divisional Round and the second half of Week 3 and the first half of week 1.
On the fifth play of the Hawks' first drive, the one that resulted in a 27 yard reception by Deion Branch, you see some of the same confusion that led to the later fumble. The Hawks are in the same formation, 3 WR, I-back. Following the snap Shaun Alexander runs up behind Matt Hasselbeck like he's either accepting a hand-off or faking play action. Meanwhile, Calvin Pace has run into the backfield and is steps in front of Hasselbeck about to convert the sack. Alexander breaks off his little shuffle behind Beck and runs towards the defender, but he's easily twice as far from Pace as Pace is from Hasselbeck. Luckily, Beck shows the presence of mind to throw out to Branch and even more luckily Branch catches, shakes a tackle and is off for a big gain.
Branch did everything right. One thing I never hear enough about is a receiver's ability to track a ball in flight, Branch is excellent at that. He is also tremendously agile, has sure hands and knows when to be tackled. That last one might sound a little off, but sometimes your not going to break a tackle, three guys are closing in on you or you're abutting the sideline and its vainglorious to put a pop to a defender or attempt to rip through the pile. Especially when you're slightly built and 5'9". Branch falls forward in front of sure tackles. It's a smart move that protects the ball and protects his health. Actually, for years I complimented Alexander on doing the same thing, too bad that caution has turned into yel--ah, forget it.
Deion Branch had two big receptions this quarter, one for 31 yards that set up a score and another for 15 and a score. What you see on both receptions is Branch's excellent ability to track the ball in flight and control his speed without breaking stride. In both abilities he looks a bit like a lesser Jerry Rice. Like Rice, Branch makes passes look impossibly accurate, as if the ball appears in his hands. On the 31 yard reception down the sideline, Branch is never able to get much separation from Roderick Hood, but he doesn't break stride or come back to the ball. He runs under it. That's because he knows exactly where the ball will fall and has a clutch crafted in Modena. He changes speeds seamlessly. We get a second look at Branch's potential on his touchdown reception, where he looks to be almost behind the defender at the time of reception. Yet the ball hits him square. It's been a disappointing season so far for Branch, but he could be a monster in this system. His route-running and hands are both excellent, but it's his ability to run into every catch that makes him so deadly on timing routes. One of these weeks, dude's gonna go off.
The Hawks slant attack hasn't been working recently and Eric Green's near interception on the third play of the Hawks' second drive might explain why. The slant works best when the corner gives enough cushion for the receiver to keep a step ahead. The way to do that is to take a false step forward before breaking into a slant. The false first step opens the possibility of a downfield route and gets the cornerback's momentum moving backwards. On this play Deion Branch made a cardinal mistake, he began moving laterally off the snap. Green had little trouble reading slant and immediately broke down on the route. I would like to think that this is something that could be resolved by the Hawks over the next week in film study, because the slant pass is a staple of the Walsh offense, but recently it's been anything but beneficial for the Hawks.
It's funny that I mentioned Hasselbeck underthrowing Branch in the first quarter for a 65 yard strike and how the result was fine but Beck still screwed up, because they ran the same play in the second half. This time Nate Clements didn't bite on the fake---Branch was doggin' it a little bit too--and when Beck delivered the pass Clements had only to turn around to be in position for the pick. It's an important lesson in not taking results and working backwards to a conclusion. Hasselbeck underthrew the first pass despite the excellent outcome. When he did it again in the third, things didn't work out so well.
Things didn’t work out so well for Branch, and the only thing that went off was his anterior cruciate ligament. When Branch collapsed, outside of the man, few suffered as fully as I. It’s not simply that I’m loyal, or that I’ve long been one of Branch’s staunchest defenders, it’s that I truly believe that, healthy, Branch could be a beast in this system. His mix of awareness, precise route running, ability to track the ball in flight, agility, seamless acceleration, deceleration and timing make him an ideal fit for a traditional West Coast offense. Assuming Branch can return at a nearly identical level as to where he left, and that’s not a far fetched assumption, we may yet find out—In 2009. Branch would have to buck some well substantiated historical trends to contribute much in 2008. Of course, the last time I wrote "buck…historical trends" I was writing of Patrick Kerney in 2007.
See, see how I put that little optimistic twist in there. Ughh…I’m such a hack. Anyway, I’m still hunting down my second of two notebooks that I recorded all my stats, observations, etc from the 2007 season in. That’s what’s delayed my posting stats in my season retros. It was lost sometime in the post-move. I’ve gotten desperate enough to ask my wife’s help, who is to finding things as Reavers are to raping to death. Which is to say, it will be found.