Patriots

Branch on strong year: 'Just so happen to be rolling 'em out in my direction'

Branch on strong year: 'Just so happen to be rolling 'em out in my direction'

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick went out of his way to compliment Alan Branch during a conference call on Tuesday. He was asked about young defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine, and he brought up Branch's name.

"Branch has been by far our most consistent defensive tackle," Belichick said. "The other guys can shoot to get up to his level."

Nearing the end of his 10th season, Branch has been one of Belichick's most dependable defenders. He has started all 15 games, played in 60 percent of the snaps (a significant bump from the 40 percent he played last season), and recorded a career-high 29 run-stuffs, according to Pro Football Focus. He's also posted 1.5 sacks, two passes defensed, and a career-high 47 tackles.

The 6-foot-6, 325-pounder is one of the primary reasons the Patriots run defense is third in the league in rush yards allowed per game (89.5) and ninth in yards allowed per carry (3.9). 

"I'm just going out there trying to have a good time," said Branch, who can often be seen on the field dancing to whatever music happens to be playing within earshot. "Just trying to play ball and stay consistent . . . I guess it's working out for me."

Though Branch is usually flanked by either Brown or Valentine -- two talented 22-year-old interior defensive linemen -- the nearly 32-year-old Branch has been the best of the bunch in 2016.

Asked if he's done anything differently this season to perform at the level he has, he shook his head.

"I'm playing the same ball," he said. "[Other teams] just so happen to be rolling 'em out in my direction, I guess. I'm able to make more plays and do well. Compliments to the scheme and everything. It's allowing me to play pretty good." 

Against the Dolphins, Branch and the rest of the defense will face a difficult test in Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi, who ran for 206 yards against the Bills last weekend. Ajayi is dealing with a shoulder injury at the moment, but Branch knows the Patriots will have to be prepared for the hard-charging runner with 1,213 yards rushing this season.

"He's a real tough runner," Branch said. "He runs really explosive. He has every trick in the bag when it comes to moves: spin, stiff-arm, jump-cut. He's a great back in this league and I expect a lot of things from him coming in the future. We're definitely going to have our hands full and going to have to be on our Ps and Qs . . . to make sure we get this guy down."

Despite 'a lot of urgency,' Patriots don't panic before game-winning pick

Despite 'a lot of urgency,' Patriots don't panic before game-winning pick

Who saw that ending coming? Anyone? Well, if the Patriots are to be believed, they had a pretty good idea that the Steelers were a threat to have something up their sleeve as time wound down on what turned out to be a thrilling 27-24 victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The ill-advised ‘fake spike throw a freakin’ slant to a well-covered Eli Rogers’ wasn’t the smartest play ever cooked up in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s apparently very smokey lab. But that’s what Pittsburgh decided the situation called for, down 3 with 9 ticks left on the clock. They were hell-bent on walking away a winner and instead departed the field slack-jawed and silent, likely having cost themselves a chance at home field throughout the playoffs and maybe, just maybe, a shot at the Super Bowl.

“I think just practice execution turns into game reality,” said an elated Duron Harmon, who intercepted that final throw. “ We’ve seen it before. Everybody didn’t panic. Nobody was out there thinking they didn’t know what to do. We just played our rules, played good football and it turned into a good play for us.”

“The fake spike is something we see all the time,” said Devin McCourty. “I think all great quarterbacks do that. If they catch you sleeping and get an easy play, they’re going to try to do it. You could see us yelling and screaming the coverage, trying to get the guys up and get set because we knew there was a chance. If they spike it, they spike it.”

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The tape told a little something different. Only Trey Flowers actually attempts to play the play up front, eventually jumping in the air to dissuade Ben Roethlisberger from throwing the pass. On the back side of the play, Stephon Gilmore barely moves while Pat Chung appears lost and then lets up. Even Duron Harmon, who ended up with the ball falling into his lap for the game-preserving interception, didn’t react at the snap of the ball. But cornerback Eric Rowe did. The Pats should thank goodness for that. He deflected the ball that ended up in Harmon’s hands.

“A lot of urgency on that last play,” he said, describing the play in detail. “I see ‘em rushing to the ball. I see Matty P (Patricia) giving the call. I’m the star (the nickel cornerback). No one is on the outside. I’m like, forget it, I need to go outside and cover ‘em up. Everybody was in panic mode trying to get lined up and I see Big Ben fake it and I’m like ‘oh they’re running a play.’ I get my eyes back on the receiver and see him doing like a slant or a pop pass. I didn’t really think he was going to throw it because I was on his hip. He threw and I said ‘I just need to break this up’ and then boom, and I honestly like - it tipped off and if they caught ‘oh my god,’ but we came down with it. I was ecstatic.”

Coming down with it was Harmon. One of his nicknames is “The Closer” for good reason. He’s had a knack for sealing games with an interception but this one may have been the biggest of his career.

“Just prepared, man. Like everyone on our team. I just prepare. Credit to the entire defense for playing until the end. To all the guys,” said Harmon.

“It’s not by accident,” said Matthew Slater, who’s seen his share of big plays. “The guy prepares himself in that way. He respects the game of football, gives it everything he has every day and comes in here and he works hard to be in position. When guys are always around the ball, it’s not by accident.”

No, it is not. Never seems to be with this team, who once again have put themselves in position to do special things come January and - they hope - February in Minnesota.

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