Patriots

From best to bust: Patriots leave Branch in Foxboro as they face Bucs in Tampa

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From best to bust: Patriots leave Branch in Foxboro as they face Bucs in Tampa

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.

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Rex Burkhead, David Harris in uniform for Patriots vs. Falcons

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Rex Burkhead, David Harris in uniform for Patriots vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- The Patriots went into Sunday night's game with only three corners available to them, and even one of those was questionable. Pitted against a Falcons attack that features the reigning MVP and one of the most physically-gifted receivers to ever play, that felt like a problem. 

It still might be, but that one questionable corner -- Johnson Bademosi (abdomen) -- will be in uniform to help thwart Julio Jones and Co. Patriots tight end Jacob Hollister (questionable with a chest injury) is also active and in uniform. 

The Patriots ruled out three players in the days leading up to the game: corners Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe and defensive end Harvey Langi. Joining them as inactive on Sunday night at Elandon Roberts (ankle), Geneo Grissom (healthy scratch), Cam Fleming (healthy scratch) and Cole Croston (healthy scratch). 

Running back Rex Burkhead will be available to the Patriots for the first time since Week 2 when he injured his ribs against the Saints. Though he's only seen a very limited number of snaps this season, when he was on the field through the first two weeks he was heavily involved. He's seen just 18 offensive snaps, but he's carried the ball five times and he's been targeted seven times in the passing game. 

Also in uniform will be veteran linebacker David Harris. He's played just seven snaps this season, but with Roberts out, maybe this is the week when he sees more playing time. He should slot in behind Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower as New England's off-the-ball 'backers. 

AFC: Steelers shut down Bengals to pull away for 29-14 win

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AFC: Steelers shut down Bengals to pull away for 29-14 win

PITTSBURGH - Ben Roethlisberger threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns, Le'Veon Bell added 192 total yards and Pittsburgh's defense dominated the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half of a 29-14 victory on Sunday.

The Steelers (5-2) relied on their stars to take the lead and then on their reinvigorated defense to blunt Cincinnati's and give themselves a significant cushion over the rest of the underwhelming AFC North.

The Bengals (2-4) came in looking to add some street cred to their resurgence after their 0-3 start, but instead spent the second half reverting to the kind of ineffective offense that got Ken Zampese fired two weeks into the season. The Steelers picked off Andy Dalton twice and sacked him three times over the final two quarters to pull away.

Chris Boswell added five field goals for Pittsburgh, which posted its highest points total and appears to be rounding into form as Halloween nears.

Two weeks after openly questioning whether he still "had it," Roethlisberger put together easily his best half of the season. He hit Antonio Brown for a 7-yard touchdown to cap Pittsburgh's first drive, found a wide-open JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 31-yard score in the second quarter and threw a perfectly placed 23-yard deep out to Brown late in the second quarter to spark a drive that ended with a 24-yard Chris Boswell field goal that put the Steelers up 20-14 at the half.

Dalton and Cincinnati appeared ready to keep pace early. He connected with Brandon LaFell and Tyler Kroft with first-half touchdowns, but when the Steelers turned the pressure up, the Bengals crumbled while losing for the eighth time in their last nine meets with their longtime nemesis.

Cincinnati managed just one first down in the second half, much of which Dalton spent on the run or throwing picks. Joe Haden collected his first interception with Pittsburgh when he made a juggling grab that set up Boswell's field goal. William Gay added one later in the third quarter on an ugly overthrow by Dalton.

Dalton finished 17 of 30 for 144 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Bengals had just 19 yards of total offense in the second half. Given one last desperate shot to get back in it with 5 minutes left trailing by 15, Dalton threw the ball away on fourth down, a microcosm of a forgettable afternoon.

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