Patriots

Branch tested market during free agency

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Branch tested market during free agency

FOXBORO -- Deion Branch did not deny he spoke with other teams during 2012's free agency period. Not that it mattered in the end.

"The conversation was there," he said after Tuesday's OTA session. "I think everyone knew exactly what was what. This is where I want to be, this is where I want to retire. Coach Belichick and I, and his staff, the organization, made sure we tried to head in that direction."

Branch is one of 10 receivers currently on the roster. He does have at least one advantage over the rest: an enviable connection with quarterback Tom Brady, built on six seasons with the Patriots.

But Branch assumes nothing. The 32-year old knows he'll have to step into the ring with the rest and is content to do so.

"Always -- and I wouldn't want it no other way. I'm here to compete; show the coaches why I'm here; why they have me on this team. That's my job is to go out and compete and try to help my team.

"I think competition is always good," Branch said. "There's so much in and out and a lot of exchanging that goes on throughout this business. You never know until it's done, until the entire roster is set. The guys here, we're all cool. We're all here for one thing and that's to win."

New England's top-gear attitude has been reflected in every player who's met with the media since April 16; they're all happily beaten up. Of the OTA's, Branch described strength coach Harold Nash's workouts as "crazy," and laughed to say Nash is "killing" him.

All part of the fun. Branch stressed how important team-building and camaraderie are during these early workouts. Just as much as earning the exhaustion.

"It's fun. You really get to see the guys who really love the game, who love to be around each other.

"After a while, after four, five, six months of it we get tired of each other," Branch joked. "But at the beginning phase it's always good to see who's here, who's excited about the upcoming season.You see the urge that the guys have and I think we're all looking forward to the season."

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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