Raiders safety practices, still questionable
Branch was hurt during last Sunday's 55-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The injury worsened on the flight back to the West Coast and Branch was held out of all workouts before returning in a limited capacity.
While that's progress, Oakland coach Dennis Allen wouldn't classify it as significant and said he won't know Branch's status for certain until Sunday.
"It's a better step forward," Allen said.
Branch, who signed a four-year, $26.6 million deal in the offseason after being hit with the franchise tag, has started 57 consecutive games for Oakland. He hasn't missed a game since a shoulder injury sidelined him for the final eight games of his rookie season in 2008.
Without him, the Raiders would be minus their second-leading tackler and the leader of the secondary.
"You don't want to miss any games, you know?" Branch said. "This is what we love to do so I don't want to miss any games. It's not about the streak, it's about me missing a game."
The Raiders are already thin in the middle of their secondary.
Free safety Matt Giordano missed practice earlier this week after suffering a concussion against Baltimore. Michael Huff, the starting free safety at the beginning of the year, has been playing cornerback since Week 3.
Mike Mitchell will start at strong safety for Oakland if Branch is unable to play. Mitchell started four games in 2011 but has played sparingly as a backup this season.
A second-round pick in 2009, Mitchell welcomes the opportunity to start. He also feels it's long overdue and was very outspoken about the situation when approached by reporters.
"I'm just so ready to be done with this, to show what I can do," Mitchell said. "I'm tired. I feel like I've been held back, held back, held back, so if I get the opportunity I just want to go play good football and show the abilities God has blessed me with. I'm definitely excited about it."
Harnessing that exuberance could be as big a challenge for the excitable Mitchell while trying to slow down the New Orleans Saints' second-ranked passing attack.
"He's a passionate player, he works extremely hard (and) he loves the game," Allen said of Mitchell. "Sometimes you have to slow his heartbeat down a little bit and get him to calm down a little bit. It's important to him and that's what I like about him."
Oakland will also be without seven-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Richard Seymour (knee, hamstring) for the second consecutive game.
That doesn't bode well for a team that has given up 97 points in its past two games. The Raiders have allowed 31 points or more in five games overall this season, four of them losses.
The Saints are averaging 27.8 points over their previous five games.
Injuries are also taking a toll on the Raiders offense.
Heyward-Bey led the Raiders in receptions and receiving yardage in 2011 but has only 24 catches through nine games this season.
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Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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