Despite his 6-foot-6, 350-pound frame, it’s easier to lose track of Alan Branch than one would think.
That’s not to discredit the veteran New England Patriots defensive tackle’s body of work. It’s more so a reminder of how work well-done can often go overlooked in a game where pass-rushing interior linemen get the glory.
That isn’t Branch’s game.
Now 31 years old, the 2007 second-round draft pick is who he is. His job is not about hitting home on the quarterback so much as it’s about occupying blocks, congesting lanes, and maintaining ground against the run.
Branch has one sack on a New England defense that stands near the back of the league with 13 this season. That, inevitably, assigns him more blame than warranted. But through his stops with the Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, Buffalo Bills and Patriots, it’s worth noting that the Michigan product has never hit home for more than three sacks in a season.
In four of his seasons, he has gone without registering any at all.
Branch, though, deserves credit for his dependability, versatility and consequent production in other aspects. And last week, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower delivered him some.
During his appearance on WEEI’s Ordway, Merloni and Fauria, Hightower fielded a question regarding who he’d pick as the defense’s midseason player of the year. And in that moment, he paused. The first-year captain could have very well said cornerback Malcolm Butler. He could have said safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. Or, he could have deferred and said the entire unit.
Hightower endorsed Alan Branch instead.
“He obviously doesn’t get talked about as much and he’s not as flashy, getting a lot of sacks or whatever,” Hightower reasoned. “But what he does for us in the run game, being able to move him from a three-technique or a five-; he can play defensive end, nose guard, shade. He can do so many things, and he does it great. We’re able to put him in certain spots to kind of neutralize certain offensive linemen of the opposing team. If we need to take care of a guy or put him wherever, he does a damn good job of it.”
Through eight games and eight starts, Branch has been on the field for 339 plays – 61 percent of the defense’s total snaps – which lands ninth-most among the group. He’s forced only one fumble in that volume, yet at a steady rate for the position, he’s forced ball-carriers to the ground.
Branch had set a career-high with 39 tackles as a member of the Bills in 2013.
Through half of 2016, he checks in with 27 tackles and is on pace for 54.
That spike surely says something about the state of New England’s front. It says something about the absence of pressure off the edge. It says something the second level’s run fits and gap discipline. It says something about the makeup of the D-tackle depth beyond fellow starter Malcom Brown. However, it would be remiss to think it didn’t say something about Branch.
Ten seasons in, he is as integral as he’s ever been.
“He’s been a steady, consistent player,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told reporters on Tuesday. “He’s a big guy, so that really helps, too. He’s big, he’s long, he’s strong. He’s really trying to do the techniques we ask him to do, which has been great. And I think he, just by his presence in the middle, can demand a lot of attention from the offensive line.”
In success, Branch’s number is one that’ll go largely unnoticed. In failure, it’s one that will be front and center. No. 97 has remained on the former side of things.
Hidden but very much present.