Patriots

Patriots' Branch working his way back into the middle of things

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Patriots' Branch working his way back into the middle of things

FOXBORO -- Alan Branch’s reputation around the league proceeds him, which is saying something when you consider the Patriots defensive tackle is 6-foot-6 and 350 (ish) pounds. His talent is evident -- when he applies it, that is -- but the overall view is that Branch is a difficult player to reach and one who doesn’t live for the game. That doesn’t make him unusual in the NFL, but it does make him unusual on a Bill Belichick-coached team.

We've seen evidence of that this year. Branch was poor in the season opener against Kansas City and saw his snaps greatly reduced in following weeks before it all came to a head before that Thursday night game in Tampa. Branch had been easily pushed around the week prior versus Carolina and the lack of effort was real. So Belichick decided Branch would stay home. It was a risky move and one Branch publicly disagreed with. How would this player -- who’s always been on his own program -- respond? Was Branch going to go into a shell and say there? Or would he work to get back on the field?

THE ALAN BRANCH SAGA

We appear to have our answer. Branch has played sound football in the two games since that benching. It hasn’t been perfect, but it’s a building block for a player the Patriots need.

"Alan is a guy that has done a great job for us around here," said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. "He's worked hard to really try to do everything that we've asked him to do and I think every game is different from that standpoint. So I definitely see some things that he's doing well in some of the looks that we're trying to get him to play. It's just about consistency for us."

Patricia did something rare for him during Tuesday’s conference calls: He went against the Belichick-grain by actually speaking Branch’s name. I had asked the same question of the head coach just a few minutes prior and Belichick decided to talk in generalalties and not mention Branch by name, which is usually (though not always) a sign the player still has some work to do to emerge from the doghouse.

"Well, I think, again, each game’s going to have a different challenge and different responsibilities for each player," said Belichick. "So, it’s just going to be continuous for all of us. Every coach and every player, it’s just going to be a continuous challenge each week to recognize what our opponents are doing, what we need to do to, in this case, defend it, how we need to play, and then go out there and be able to execute it on Sunday against the players and the scheme and the combination of things that they do offensively that give you problems. It’s just a week-to-week challenge and especially for players that haven’t played consistently for the last several weeks, in terms of a high number of snaps in every game and things like that. I think the challenge is a little bit greater, just because the number of reps and plays are fewer."

Branch has repeatedly said it’s hard to compare his play from this year to last year because there’s not enough tape to go off, a not-so-subtle dig at the coaching staff. When I asked him about his performance following Sunday’s win over the Falcons, he acknowledged improvement.

"Yeah I mean, I’m getting better," he said. "I have to watch film to see how I did, but [I'm] getting better. I got in the backfield a couple of times and probably could have made a couple of tackles that I was right next to." 

Then he added: "You always got to get better in this league. You can’t be stagnant or level all the time."

Branch was hardly stagnant early in the year. He was poor. But now the arrow is pointing up, and that’s good news for a defense that -- like Branch -- has largely underperformed for a better part of the season.

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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'

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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.