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Ricky Jean Francois quick to lend a hand in return to Patriots’ defensive line

Ricky Jean Francois recorded six tackles over 20 snaps Sunday against Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Ricky Jean Francois has been on three teams since the 2017 league year began. He’s been released four times and re-signed twice over that span. He’s been through a trio of roster transactions in the past month alone.

But the 31-year-old defensive tackle didn’t look to be in foreign territory when he rejoined the New England Patriots this past week. By Sunday evening, four days after flying back to Boston, Jean Francois was in Pittsburgh to face the Steelers.

Jean Francois, who initially signed with the Patriots on Nov. 7 and was waived on Dec. 2 after three appearances, 40 snaps and two tackles, checked in at the 2:12 mark in the first quarter at Heinz Field. And in what was the third series for the defense, the 6-foot-3, 313-pound veteran lined up at the 4i-technique against Pro Bowl Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and alongside Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy.

The ball made its way to Le’Veon Bell from there, though it didn’t travel much further. Jean Francois and Brown wedged the selective, three-time 1,000-yard running back behind the left guard for a gain of only one.

It wasn’t pretty. But Jean Francois’ initial effort helped create a nice little mess.

The 2009 seventh-round pick out of LSU continued to congest things when he came on for his third snap at the 8:21 mark in the second quarter. Staying in the left B-gap, Jean Francois managed to get under the pads of Pittsburgh guard Ramon Foster to delay a decision from the hiding-and-seeking Bell.

It was patience versus patience, almost like two boxers waiting for the other to punch so they could counter. But Jean Francois didn’t get eager; he simply sat in the tall grass and occupied the point of attack.

And that afforded Brown and edge-rusher Eric Lee time to clean up Bell after another one-yard pickup.

Jean Francois saw a total of 20 snaps in the Patriots’ 27-24 win over the Steelers, and 15 of them were handoffs. Those handoffs – with Bell getting 14 and rookie James Conner getting one – netted 61 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Not too porous on a night where Bell amassed a total of 117 yards on 24 carries and Conner chipped in 13 yards on three carries. Jean Francois was on the field for nine Steelers runs of two yards or less.

The lowest points for No. 94 appeared to come late in the third quarter when he failed to set the corner on that TD from three yards out, and then got turned around a minute later as Bell marched through his lane from Pittsburgh’s own three-yard line to collect eight. But there was plenty of good from the former San Francisco 49er, Indianapolis Colt, Washington Redskin and Green Bay Packer. There was the disruption of timing in the run game – and even a glimpse of pass rush that guided Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger up the pocket and into a sack.

Jean Francois finished with six combined tackles, with one on a Roethlisberger fumbled snap and the other handful on Bell. And it's possible his best transpired with just over a minute to go before halftime.

On first-and-9 down at the goal line, Pittsburgh set up shop in shotgun with Bell flanking Roethlisberger. As the ball was handled, Jean Francois, shading inside Villanueva, let the tackle’s inside reach play to his advantage.

Jean Francois angled the 6-foot-9, 320-pound bookend to the direction he was already shouldering. And before long, Villanueva found himself perpendicular to the line of scrimmage and facing the man he was blocking for.

Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts had flown out of cannon towards the backfield by then, and Jean Francois had disengaged his hands. Together they met safety Devin McCourty as all three triangulated for the tackle on one of the “Killer B’s.”

Jean Francois was in the mix for 13 first downs, five second downs, as well as two third-and-shorts altogether against the Steelers. He punched the clock for one play in the first, eight in the second, six in the third, and five in the fourth.

It was a situational workload he would not have seen had Alan Branch – dealing with a knee injury – been active. Perhaps Jean Francois wouldn’t have even seen the 508 area code on his phone last week if the fellow run-stuffer was on pace to be.

But on short notice, Jean Francois was on call.