HOUSTON -- Alan Branch has been one of the most consistent players on the Patriots defense throughout the course of the 2016 season. Planted in the middle of Bill Belichick's defensive line, he's been a force against opposing running games in executing the two-gapping technique that the team employs.
With a matchup against Atlanta's well-balanced offensive attack on tap, he'll play a vital role once again, which is why his appearance on the Patriots injury report Wednesday raised an eyebrow.
The 6-foot-5, 350-pounder was limited in the team's first practice of the week with a toe issue, which he said was the result of getting stepped on. He's feeling good, he explained, which is probably a relief for the Patriots coaching staff.
Branch, 32, has played in 61.2 percent of the defensive snaps this season, which is the highest percentage of his career since 2011, when he played 65.4 percent for the Seahawks. His 723 snaps played this season, a contract year for him, are the most of his career.
"Alan has done a great job for us, and along with his play which is certainly significant, one of the things that’s really been impressive about him has been his play time," Belichick said last week. "So in addition to his overall production he’s played a lot more than he has in quite a while in terms of number of plays.
"From a production standpoint he’s got, again, quite a few tackles, tackles for loss. It’s hard to measure the disruptive plays, but he’s certainly got his share of those. He’s played very well for us in the running game. He’s given us a presence in the pass rush of a long, physical player in the middle. That’s all been really good, and he’s played more plays so all of that is good."
Along with Branch, Martellus Bennett (knee), Nate Ebner (concussion), Dont'a Hightower (shoulder), Chris Hogan (thigh) and Malcolm Mitchell (knee) were all limited in Wednesday's practice.
For the Falcons, Julio Jones (toe) was limited Wednesday. Center Alex Mack, who's expected to square off with Branch quite a bit on Sunday, was also limited with a fibula injury.