TAMPA, Fla. -- It wasn't all that long ago that Bill Belichick was going out of his way to praise Alan Branch as the Patriots' top interior defensive lineman.
"Branch, by far, has been our most consistent tackle," Belichick said back in December. "Those other guys can shoot to get up to his level."
Less than a year later, the 6-foot-6, 350-pounder is having trouble finding his way onto the field.
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Branch did not make the trip to Florida and since he has not been added to the injury report, it appears as though he will be a healthy scratch on Thursday night against the Bucs, according to ESPN's Mike Reiss.
The story as to how he got here starts on the field.
Branch was underwhelming in 42 snaps in the season opener, and he saw his playing time dip to just six snaps in Week 2. Against the Texans in Week 3, he seemed to be getting his legs under him with 21 snaps that included one of the key plays in the game -- a third-and-one stop in the fourth quarter that paved the way for Tom Brady's comeback drive.
Last week against the Panthers, though, Branch dropped back down to 12 snaps and did little while on the field to garner more playing time. He was pancaked by Carolina guard Trai Turner in the second quarter on a quick pass play to Christian McCaffrey. On one snap in the third quarter, he got too far upfield and left a hole for Jonathan Stewart to run through for nine yards. Later on the same series, Turner controlled Branch again, planting him on the ground (and on the back of Elandon Roberts' leg) for an eight-yard Cam Newton run.
At his best, Branch is a space-eater extraordinaire able to hold his ground against double-teams, allowing linebackers to make clean tackles. But over the last two seasons, he's been more than that, able to push the pocket and prevent quarterbacks from stepping up and away from pass-rushers. He's also been a consistent contributor on the field goal and field-goal block units.
By being left off the plane to Tampa, it seems to be an indication that there aren't many situations in which Branch is trusted at the moment.
Branch, as usual, did not participate in OTAs this spring, and he missed much of training camp on the physically unable to perform list. But this doesn't look like a "well, he needs more time" issue to work himself into game shape. Players like Nate Solder and Dont'a Hightower missed large chunks of camp as well, and Branch was trusted to play a significant amount in the season-opener.
Branch told Mike Giardi this week that it's hard for him to round into the player he's been over the last few seasons while sitting on the sidelines. But right now, the Patriots haven't seen enough of him while he's on the field to keep him out there. As a result, for the first time since 2014, Branch won't be in uniform when the Patriots take the field Thursday night.