TAMPA, Fla. -- Veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch didn't travel with the New England Patriots for their Thursday night game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a decision that is similar to the 2016 season when defensive end Jabaal Sheard didn't accompany the team to San Francisco.
Just like Sheard's situation at the time, the decision is based on performance. Branch, who in 2016 was called the team's most consistent interior defensive lineman by coach Bill Belichick and then was re-signed to a two-year deal as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, has struggled to find that form this year.
In the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, for example, Branch was easily pushed out of his gap on Charcandrick West's 21-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter as West raced right by him (landing him as a "down" in a postgame personnel analysis). Most recently, against the Carolina Panthers, he had trouble keeping his balance in one-on-one situations.
He has been third or fourth on the defensive tackle depth chart behind Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown (arguably the best player on defense this past Sunday) and undrafted rookie Adam Butler. Because of that, his playing time has been limited: 42 snaps against the Chiefs, six against the New Orleans Saints, 21 against the Houston Texans and 12 against the Panthers.
Branch told Mike Giardi of NBC Boston Sports that not playing as much has hindered his ability to find a rhythm.
"It definitely is, but if that's my role, I gotta be able to get used to going in there, spelling guys, putting good plays out there to help the defense get the offense off the field," he told Giardi. "It's definitely tough because you're not in the swing of things because you're not on the field all the time, but at the same time, if that's what your numbers called for, that's what you have to try to do."
Meanwhile, Belichick has often said that players earn their playing time by their performance.
Just as Sheard ultimately bounced back in 2016 after not traveling to San Francisco, Branch can too.