If New England Patriots DT Alan Branch is suspended for four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, then the anchor of the defense will no longer be a mountainous and savvy veteran.
Instead, the Patriots will have to asked 2nd year DT Malcom Brown and rookie DTs Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton to step up against four teams that rely heavily on their rushing attack. Since the passing attacks of the Jets, Rams, Ravens, and Broncos all rank in the bottom of the league, they all ask their running backs to take pressure off the quarterback.
Brown, Valentine, and Hamilton will have to play like veterans if the Patriots are going to keep pace in the AFC. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia seems hopeful about their prospects.
“Malcom Brown, going into his second year, trying to just kind of build on what he was able to do last year,” Patricia said on Tuesday. “With him it’s still a lot of learning the system and the fundamentals and being consistent as a player. He’s a really hard-working guy, he really studies the game, he’s smart. Malcom is really smart. He understands sets and he understands the alignments of the offense; just really trying to put all that together to be a better player.
“He’s obviously further along than those other two guys but he’s done a good job for us and we’ll put him in some different spots and do some different things. Woodrow is just another young player trying to get better. He has gotten to see some live action which is good, and we put him out there in practice and just try to improve and be consistent. He has definitely shown the ability to do some of the things we’re asking him to do and for him, he just needs to do it on a consistent basis down in and down out.”
“[Valentine’s] shown some improvement,” Patricia added. “He has good length and good size, so when goes out there and plays with good technique and is able to get that extension and get the blockers off of him, he does a good job of finding the ball, being able to shed and make some plays in there. Consistency is what we’re trying to find, just pushing him to be a more consistent player down in and down out.”
While Branch has received a lot of the glory in 2016, Brown has improved as a run defender and he’s controlling the line of scrimmage up the middle. Valentine and Hamilton are works in progress, with Hamilton being a slightly more stout run defender and Valentine offering more upside.
Based on prior performances against the run, Hamilton should get an opportunity to start next to Brown, although Valentine clearly appears ahead in the depth chart. Head coach Bill Belichick says that the best player will get the most time.
“Going into the game [play time is] a function of how we determine our roster and how we determine our groupings going into the game based on our game plan and our matchup against our opponent,” Belichick said on Tuesday. “I mean, ultimately the better the players play, the better an individual player plays, the better he performs, the more production he has then the more he’s going to play. I mean, that’s pretty straight forward around here. Everybody knows that and that’s the way it’ll be. It’s my philosophy. Guys that don’t play as well need to improve, need to find a way to be more productive, need to do something to change their playing time, or playing status, or whatever you want to call it and when that happens then things will change.”
The Patriots have been playing Branch and Brown roughly 60% of the time, with Valentine coming off the bench for 20% of the snaps. Don’t be surprised if Brown takes on a larger role as Valentine and Hamilton rotate to see which player can step up the most.
Branch’s suspension comes at a crucial time for the Patriots defense. It will be up to the young trio of defensive tackles to press forward and stop a tough slate of running backs.