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


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?


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.


Keionta Davis proving to be an intriguing pass-rush option for the Patriots

Keionta Davis proving to be an intriguing pass-rush option for the Patriots

FOXBORO -- After Keionta Davis folded up Eagles quarterback Joe Callahan for a sack in the waning seconds of Thursday's preseason game, he took a brief moment to himself. Rolling off of Callahan, Davis paused ever so quickly with his shoulders pinned on the turf before getting helped up. 

Davis couldn't be blamed for taking a short breather for himself, if that's what it was. He played more snaps than any other Patriots defender (54) -- a rare honor for a 6-foot-3, 280-pounder -- and it wasn't all in mop-up duty. 

The second-year defensive lineman started the game for the Patriots and ended it with a sack. He had 1.5 sacks on the night to go along with three more pressures and two stops in the running game. 

"Coaches just wanted me to get some reps," Davis said. "I gotta play. It's that simple."

The reason Davis has to play is that he hasn't played for quite some time. For ever player who may need a workload reduction this summer after having played a lot of football in 2017, there's a player like Davis who could use the extra work to knock off the layers of rust that have accumulated. 

Davis was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga last summer. He was a two-time All-American as a menace off the edge, and his talent was enough to reportedly coax Bill Belichick to Chattanooga to put Davis through a private workout. He had 31 sacks in college and was projected to be a mid-to-late round pick last spring, but he went unclaimed due to a bulging disc in his neck that was found in a physical at the NFL Scouting Combine. 

According to a story last May in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Davis had no idea anything was wrong. He finished the 2016 season as the Southern Conference defensive player of the year, and he participated in the Senior Bowl before getting the news.

The Patriots signed Davis last summer, but by the time the NFL's regular season rolled around, Davis was placed on the non-football injury/reserve list, ending his year before it began. 

That's what made Thursday night all the more special for the 24-year-old. His first sack in the fourth quarter was his first since last year's Senior Bowl. In the aftermath, he clapped his hands and looked up to the sky.

"It was relief," he said. "I didn't want to celebrate. I still got work to do, man. I'm not really trying to celebrate right now . . . Let me get through the rest of camp. More work to be done."

Davis' second sack (he was only credited with half sack on the play) came after powering back guard Darrell Green en route to his target. 

On both plays, it appeared that Davis was working as a three-technique -- off the outside shoulder of the offensive guard in front of him. Though he arrived to the Patriots as a true edge defender, listed at 260 pounds at the time, Davis has bulked up and spent plenty of time working from the interior this summer. 

"There's been a learning curve," he said. "I did put on some weight, up to 280 now, but my body feels great. I don't feel a difference. Moving inside everything moves a little bit quicker. It's something I haven't done before, but I'm asked to do it so I try to go in there and master it the best I can."

With good quickness and long arms, Davis is a natural fit to work against stubbier guards and centers. Especially in New England, where Trey Flowers -- another long-armed end -- has had great success as a disruptor from the inside. 

"I'm quicker than most guys on the inside" Davis said. "Got good length, I feel like. I think it uses my strengths to the best of my ability. And then I'm just learning from the guys who play inside. Malcolm Brown. Lawrence Guy's really helped whenever I'm inside. They give me the best tips they can."

For all the learning he did during his season off, for all the tutoring he's received from the veterans around him, playing time will continue to be critical.

Belichick indicated on Friday that while he's impressed by what Davis has done to this point, his young pass-rusher needs to log more minutes of game action. 

"He still has a long way to go," Belichick said. "He still has a lot of things he needs to improve on and refine and react quicker to and so forth, but that comes from not having actively played football for a year, or a little more than a year . . . 

"Hopefully those things will come back to him and his reactions and all will continue to improve. He's done a good job. He's in good condition. He's worked hard. I like what he's been doing."

Late on Thursday night inside the Patriots locker room, Davis entertained questions from multiple reporters, smiling often as he took his time with each. Even though he knew the game's score meant nothing, even though he said he knew he had plenty of work to do to earn a roster spot, he appeared to be enjoying the moment.

He was a long way from last year. 

"It definitely wasn't promised, and they definitely took a chance on me," Davis said. "Everything just worked out. I just want to show my gratitude by going out there and playing hard, competing. Whatever role they put me in, I'll try to do my best."