Patriots

Patriots' Branch frustrated with lack of playing time

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Patriots' Branch frustrated with lack of playing time

FOXBORO -- If you're believer that the tape doesn't lie, then my goodness, Alan Branch is not half the player he used to be.

The anchor of the Patriots defense a year ago -- and maybe the last two, considering how well he peformed -- Branch has become a bit player for a defense that desperately needs the 6-foot-6, 350-pound freak of nature to get back to his old form. But since a rugged opener versus Kansas City, Branch has seen his snaps go from a season-high 42 to a mere 6 in New Orleans, up to 21 against the Texans and back down to a dozen in Sunday's loss to the Panthers.

"Everybody wants to play," Branch told me Tuesday. "It's upsetting. At the same time, it's not my pay grade to make those decisions."

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No, that decision is made by Bill Belichick and his defensive staff. In their defense, Branch hasn't made a compelling case to get more reps, making the decision to re-sign him at the age of 32 and give him a decent chunk of change -- $3 million in guarantees -- questionable. Yes, there is time to get right, but what we're seeing now hardly provides even a glimmer of hope that it's coming, though Branch, when asked, believes that player, the one we saw in previous season, is still there.

"I feel like it," he said. "But like I said, I can't do that on the sidelines."

Branch acknowledged that he's working on his craft, trying to prove it to those that matter he can still be counted on. 

"I just want to be able to go out there and make a difference in the game," he noted. "Anybody that plays the game wants to be in the game. I'm just trying to do my best trying to get better in each practice, get right in the weight room and everything."

If he does that, Branch believes the onus is off of him and onto the coaching staff.

"If I do that, then [playing time] is really . . . that's up to the coaches. I play when I'm called."

But maybe another offseason away from the facilities -- as has been his modus operandi since signing here -- is catching up to a player who has always been, shall we say, oversized. Combine his weight with a decade in the league and perhaps -- perhaps -- we've seen the best of Branch. Or maybe, at this juncture, he's still catching up with conditioning and adjusting to a new role.

Branch admitted to me that not playing as much has hindered his ability to find a rhythm. 

"It definitely is, but if that's my role, I gotta be able to get used to going in there, spelling guys, putting good plays out there to help the defense get the offense off the field," he's said. "It's definitely tough because you're not in the swing of things because you're not on the field all the time, but at the same time, if that's what your numbers called for, that's what you have to try to do."

Bottom line is the Patriots need more from Branch, who is unlike any player they have on the defensive line. If he can't get right, that's just another spot the Pats will have to coach around in an attempt to find the productive defense we all believed they would have when the season started, and not the one that's been gashed for over 1,800 yards and has given up 30 or more points in three of the first four games of this year.

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0. 

Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat. 

Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL. 

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According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards. 

And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more. 

"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game. 

"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . . 

"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."

A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score. 

Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.

"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field." 

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Belichick remembers Glenn: 'A good person with good intentions'

Belichick remembers Glenn: 'A good person with good intentions'

Terry Glenn, the Patriots' top draft pick in 1996, died early Monday morning in a one-car accident in Irving, Texas. He was 43. 

Bill Belichick coached Glenn as an assistant with the Patriots during Glenn's rookie season. He was later Glenn's head coach in 2000 and 2001. Belichick traded Glenn to the Packers before the 2002 season after a tumultuous run in New England that involved legal trouble, injuries and clashes with the coaching staff.

During a conference call with reporters soon after the news of Glenn's death was published, Belichick remembered Glenn for his natural physical ability and "a good heart."

"I was pretty close with Terry," Belichick said, "and his rookie season was my first year here in '96, and so I had a lot of interaction with him and other people that were involved in his life and his upbringing separate from the Patriots. Terry's a very smart individual. Had a lot of, obviously, a lot of physical skill and talent. Could do a lot of things on the football field very naturally. And I think he was deep down inside a good person with good intentions and, you know, a good heart. Obviously it's very unfortunate. Very unfortunate passing. I mean, it's a sad day. Sad news."

According to reports, Glenn was with his fiancee at the time of the accident. She's being treated at a local hospital for unspecified injuries.