New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been open about the performance of his defensive players this year. Whether it’s trading LB Jamie Collins to the Browns, making ED Jabaal Sheard a healthy scratch against the 49ers, or sitting DT Malcom Brown until garbage time against the Jets, Belichick has made it clear that poor performance is unacceptable from his star players.
On Tuesday, Belichick was asked about the growth of his young defensive tackles and his response was very interesting.
“I think [Vincent Valentine] is improving,” Belichick said. “He’s still got a ways to go. There are a lot of things he is working on, he’s gotten better at, but it’s a different game in there. Especially for us where we play guys like him in different spots. Sometimes he’s on the center, sometimes he’s in the gap, sometimes he’s on the guard, sometimes he’s in a three-technique. He’s making progress. He’s coming along.
“[Malcom Brown]’s had some good moments. We’re just looking really for more consistency there. [Alan Branch] has been by far our most consistent defensive tackle. The other guys can shoot to get up to his level.”
Branch earned praise from his teammates earlier this season as a player that should have earned Pro Bowl consideration. Branch has 12 stuffs at the line of scrimmage this year, which ranks in the top 10 for defensive tackles this year. Brown has just 5, while Valentine has 2.
The Patriots ask their defensive tackles to play along the line and their versatility is an underrated aspect of the defensive versatility. Branch can play every spot from the nose to the 5-technique outside the shoulder of the offensive tackle, while Brown and Valentine are considered more interior options. Having multiple defensive tackles that can shift on the interior and share responsibilities can make it more difficult for opposing interior linemen and allow more miscommunication for blitzing linebackers to take advantage.
Brown might not have the same raw statistics as Branch, but the Patriots defense is better against the run with him on the field. The Patriots allow an average of 0.83 rushing yards fewer than the league with Brown on the field and the sophomore’s value added ranks 5th in the league for all interior defensive lineman.
If Brown can play at a more consistent level, if Branch can continue his high level of play, and if Valentine continues to grow late in his rookie campaign, then the Patriots run defense will continue to thrive into the playoffs.