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.