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
- SEPTEMBER 20: Branch on reduced number of snaps -- 'Ask Bill'
- OCTOBER 4: Branch frustrated with lack of playing time
- OCTOBER 5: Patriots leave Branch home as they play at Tampa Bay
- OCTOBER 15: Branch says it 'felt good' to be back on field vs. Jets
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.