Defensive lineman Alan Branch has been a big force for the Patriots. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
FOXBORO — It’s not just Vince Wilfork‘s job to plug the middle anymore.
For years, the Patriots run defense hinged on the ability of the veteran nose tackle to stay on the field, sometimes for the whole game.
With the emergence of Sealver Siliga last year and the addition of Alan Branch this season, the Patriots have some big bodies backing up the big man along the Patriots defensive line.
And with the Jets on deck Sunday at MetLife Stadium, the Patriots have picked a good time to get healthy in the middle of the line where New York loves to run Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson behind Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold.
“I’d say the combination of getting Alan and Siliga back,” Belichick said. “It was two weeks ago, right? Well, Branch was longer than that, Siliga and even Chandler [Jones] last week. Those players have definitely given our line more depth and more versatility really.
“Branch is a big guy, Siliga is a big guy, Chandler is more of an edge guy, but when you put them all together, it looks a little different than it did a few weeks ago. The guys that are coming back like Siliga and Branch [has] now been here going on two months, but they have improved. Just like Chandler, his timing and some of the things that he does this week will probably be fundamentally a little better than they were last week.”
Branch, released by the Bills after an August DUI, was considered a project when the team signed him to a one-year deal Oct. 29 after being claimed him off the waiver wire. But now, he is playing on short yardage and early down situations, seeing 16 snaps on Sunday.
“Alan has done a good job. He’s had some versatility,” Belichick said Friday. “He’s got length, but he’s also got size. He’s very athletic, [he] runs five flat or whatever. He has good quickness and can move. So, he has the versatility to play some different spots and do some different things along the defensive front.”
But just because he’s playing short yardage and on first and second down doesn’t mean Belichick would hesitate to leave him on the field.
“I wouldn’t call him a one-dimensional type of player,” Belichick added. “He’s a tough matchup on a lot of guys because of his length and because of his power. He’s learned quickly. I think technique-wise there are some things that we do that are probably a little different than some of the things that he’s done. But he learns quickly. He’s smart; he has a lot of experience. I’m glad we have him. I think he’s worked hard to try to do the things we’ve asked him to do.”
Has Belichick learned anything about his technique and his skill set that he didn’t know when he joined the Patriots?
“Yeah, you see a guy on film, but then when you start working with him and, ‘Here’s how we want you to do it. Here’s what you do against this type of block, that type of block. Here’s this technique, that technique.’ Some things come pretty quickly because maybe that’s what they’re used to doing or that’s kind of an easy progression from them. Then there are other things with et into the nuts and bolts of that it’s hard to get that specific, especially when you’ve never coached the some players that, ‘I haven’t done that before,’ or, ‘I’m having a little trouble with that.’
“Until you actually get into the nuts and bolts of that, it’s hard to get that specific, especially when you’ve never coached a player before. The same thing can be true of learning too. Eighty percent of the learning can be pretty quick and I don’t want to say easy, but relatively easy, and then there might be 20 percent that, ‘This is a little bit different,’ or ‘It’s something I haven’t done before.’ Or trying to break a habit ‘ ‘This is the way I’ve always done it and now you’re asking me to do it a little bit differently.’ Things like that.
“I think there’s always a little bit of that. I’m not saying that in a bad way. It’s just a transition and adjustment and you really develop your consistency and fundamentals and techniques in training camp. That’s what those training camp practices are for ‘ go out there and grind through the individual drills, grind through the 9-on-7s, the one-on-one pass rushes, the sleds, the bags. Do it repetitively day after day four or five days a week for three, four, five weeks and that’s how you build that. When you come in in the middle of the season and you don’t have all that then you don’t have some of the repetition, reaction, the reaction time from those multiple repetitions and multiple looks on smaller scale, but it’s a foundation that you need to build. You just don’t have that, so you’re kind of trying to build without a great foundation. But it is what it is. Every team in the league has guys on their team that weren’t with them in training camp. You just have to try to do the best you can.”