FOXBORO -- Patriots rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine played in 18 snaps during last week's win over the 49ers, almost half the number of snaps given to fellow defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown -- both of whom saw 35. But in the playing time he received, Valentine made an impact.
On back-to-back plays at the end of the first half, he recorded a run stuff for no gain as he worked his way down the line of scrimamge, got off of his block, and wrapped up running back Carlos Hyde. On the very next play, he showed good burst to work a game with Branch and get to quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He flushed Kaepernick from the pocket, eventually leading to a strip sack by defensive end Rob Ninkovich.
Valentine, who also had a tackle for a loss in the game, earned some praise from coach Bill Belichick on Friday morning when Belichick was asked if Valentine's latest performance was his best as a pro.
"I thought he did a good job," Belichick said. "He, I'd say, has good plays every week. And there are plays he could play better on in the games that he's played. He's definitely, I'd say, an improving player. It's headed in the right direction. He's certainly had some positive plays, I'd say pretty much in every game. Might've been a couple more last week, but it's trending the right way."
The 6-foot-3, 320-pound third-round pick out of Nebraska missed three games earlier this season with a back injury, and in the games he's played he's seen time in 27 percent of New England's defensive snaps. The team may need more from Valentine in the near future depending on how Branch's appeal of a four-game suspension turns out.
Branch has been the teams most consistent interior defensive lineman this season and is on pace to play in 675 snaps, which would be second-most in his career after the 691 he saw in 2011 for the Seahawks. If he misses time, Valentine would be the next man up with fellow rookie Woodrow Hamilton potentially seeing some work as well.
Belichick said that if Valentine was called upon for more -- his season-high for snaps this season is 23, while Branch's is 59 -- he feels as though the rookie would be able to handle more from a conditioning standpoint.
"I don't think that's an issue," Belichick said.
In fact, Belichick said he's appreciated how all of his team's big-bodied athletes have handled their conditioning this season -- particularly the rookies, for whom it can sometimes be difficult as they adjust to the demand of life as a professional.
"I think, really, all our players are in good condition this year," Belichick said. "I think Moses has done a good job. Guys like Branch have played more snaps than he's ever played. Malcom played a lot of snaps. Vincent. Our offensive line, those guys have played a lot of snaps. I'm talking about the bigger guys now.
"I think our conditioning has been good. We've had a lot of guys play in those positions, and a lot of those guys have played a lot of football, a lot of snaps. I haven't gotten the sense . . . Last week was a good test defensively because of the tempo of the game and so forth. It didn't feel like that was an issue.
"I think overall the team's trained hard. They trained hard in the offseason. Worked hard in training camp. Again, we've been relatively healthy so we've been able to stay out there a lot of times. A lot of times the conditioning declines a little bit when the player misses three, four, five weeks then comes back. He's back, but he's maybe not in the same condition he would be if he hadn't missed that amount of time.
"I'd say all those guys are doing a good job. But, look, it's always a little more of a chalennege for the rookies. Overall this group, we haven't had any issues with any of them. Especially on the weight end of it. [Joe] Thuney, [Ted] Karras, Valentine, Hamilton. None of those guys have had weight issues at all."