Schwartz In, Branch Out
Long before he was busted for a DWI in late August, the writing was on the wall for Alan Branch. Following former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s departure to the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo quickly hired former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz to fill the void. With that coordinator change came a subtle but important scheme alteration that greatly impacted Branch’s fit within the defense.
Prior to Pettine’s departure, the Bills inked Branch to a three-year extension with nearly $4 million guaranteed. However, the defender was rendered an expensive backup upon the implementation of Schwartz’s wide-9-style, 4-3 base defense, in which both defensive ends align outside of the offensive tackles.
No Place in Line
Pettine, also a former defensive coordinator for the New York Jets, also ran a 4-3 base defense in Buffalo. However, his strategy called for the defensive linemen to play “under” technique (aligned away from the strength of the formation) with the linebackers then shifted over the top of the strong side of the formation.
While not a 3-4 defense, the 4-3 under created a front often confused with a 3-4 look due to having five defenders on the line of scrimmage. And much like a 3-4 defense, Pettine preferred to use three stout defensive lineman in combination with a more traditional 4-3 pass rushing defensive end that was quicker and lighter in weight. Aside from a few wrinkles, it is the same system Branch found success in while playing under Pete Carroll for the Seattle Seahawks during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
In comparison, Schwartz’ scheme only requires two 300+ interior linemen, leaving Branch on the outside looking in with the Bills already employing stud defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.
Evaluation: Limited Data
For the 2014 preseason, Branch was demoted to the third string defense, often not entering the game until the 4th quarter. The DWI arrest, it would appear, cemented his position on the chopping block as final cuts neared.
The 29-year-old Branch was a reasonably effective player a year ago, starting 13 games and playing in 52 percent of the team’s total defensive snaps. Head coach Bill Belichick now needs to determine whether Branch was a victim of an unexpected scheme change, whether his decline was exacerbated by off-field issues, or if he no longer has the speed and strength to compete in the NFL.
After reviewing a handful of games from his 2013 season, here’s what Branch (#90) potentially brings to the table:
Quick Burst Off The Line
In this Week 1 game against the Patriots last year, Branch showed that big men (6’6”, 325 lbs) can still possess quickness.
Branch (#90) begins the play lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard (3-technique), almost directly in the B gap (between the guard and tackle). Just prior to the snap, Branch will shift technique along with fellow defensive lineman Dareus. Branch is now nearly head up with the offensive tackle with a slight inside shade (4-technique).
One would now typically expect Branch to attack either the B or C gap (outside the tackle). This is precisely what guard Logan Mankins anticipates as he takes a hard step towards the B gap at the snap. However, Mankins blocks nothing but air as Branch explodes through the A gap using a crossover step as his teammate, Dareus, occupies the center:
While Branch is unable to bring down the ball carrier, his penetration into the backfield disrupted the run play enough to allow his teammates to swoop in for the tackle on a minimal 3-yard gain. It’s not often you see a man of Branch’s size with the ability to burst diagonally from nearly head up over tackle right into the A gap in only a step and a half.
Lateral Movement and Get Off
Against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 6 of 2013, Branch once again showed off his agility, this time using a combination of strength and lateral quickness to bring down the ball carrier.
Branch is lined up in the B gap between the left tackle and guard on the open side of the formation. The Bengals run a stretch play to Branch’s side with the guard engaging him from an angle:
Branch is first able to use excellent footwork to stay parallel to the line of scrimmage without giving up ground, despite some significant traffic around him. He then uses his strength to shrug off the block before eventually yanking down the ball carrier for a short gain.
Later in the contest, Branch will once again use strength to stuff the run game. Prior to the snap, Branch is lined head up over the guard (2-technique) within a traditional 3-4 look from the Bills defense. The Bengals go with a super unbalanced line with only a guard and tight end lined up right of center:
Keying on the handoff to the left, Branch will use a short crossover, or slant, step towards the A gap before taking on the blocker. The defensive lineman is able to separate from the guard with a perfectly executed push-pull maneuver before dragging down the ball carrier for only a 2-yard gain.
At The Nose
Mind the Gap
Working against a single block, Branch is able to drive Mangold back a full yard with leverage outside the hash mark. As the play continues to develop, running back Chris Ivory presses hard to the right of Branch causing him to shift leverage back towards the middle. Ivory then executes a devastating cutback behind the backside of Mangold and rumbles for a 10-yard gain ‒ a result all too familiar from the recent Thursday night game between the Patriots and Jets:
Although Branch’s initial work against Mangold is impressive, he is caught reacting to the ball carrier instead of maintaining his gap assignment. Branch fails to realize that he has help to his right with the linebacker filling the running lane.
However, Branch fares much better in this back-to-back sequence while manning the nose:
While the previous breakdown showed Branch reacting to the ball carrier at the expense of his gap, this time the defensive lineman stays in his lane. He once again handles Mangold’s single block well, driving him backwards before eventually shedding the Pro Bowl center. Branch is then able to contact the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage and spill him towards the contain defender on the edge.
Drive and Flow
On the very next play, Branch is again lined up over the center and shaded towards the strong-side A gap. With the action going to the the tight end side of the formation, the Jets appear to run the stretch play:
Right off the snap, Branch is able to drive Mangold into the backfield while going with the flow of the play-side blocking. The combination block from the back-side guard barely knocks Branch off his stride as he helps blow up the run play.
Although only a snapshot of Branch’s year was dissected, he did appear to be caught gap-guessing on occasion. Instead of keying off the running back or offensive lineman, Branch sometimes seemed to have his mind made up before the snap.
Take last year’s Week 14 contest against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Branch is again receiving more playing time in the middle of the defensive line. Lined up in the A gap between the center and guard, Branch will utilize a crossover step into the B gap at the snap:
Perhaps falling for the ghost motion of a wide receiver heading into the backfield for the possible handoff, Branch’s hesitation leaves a significant alley between the center and left guard. The handoff, as well as the running back’s first step, indicated run to the left of center from the start.
Guessing or Reading
Branch recovers with a better read of the running back later in the game, using patience and his own height to his advantage.
While lined up nose-to-nose with the Bucs’ center, Branch will receive a block from their right guard as the entire Tampa Bay line, with the exception of a pulling left guard, steps to the defensive right to deliver angled blocks:
Even though the block comes from a tough angle, Branch shows exceptional quickness to face up the guard. While most of his teammates are leveraged to the right, Branch stays stout and tall in the middle of a heap of red and white. Most importantly, he keeps his head up, locates the ball carrier and sheds the block to close the running lane and spill the runner outside for only a small gain.
Vision and Awareness
Late in the game, Branch once again shows good awareness on a similarly-designed run with a chaotic blocking scheme. Shaded over the center, Branch will see another angle block from the guard:
By quickly getting his arms inside the blocker, Branch is able to create separation and then drop him to his knees. He smoothly transitions over to the running lane and drills the ball carrier to the ground.
Pass On The Pass Rush
Coming full circle, we close out with last year’s Week 17 tilt against the Patriots. Since every previous breakdown focused on a running play, this analysis would not be complete without addressing Branch’s ability to pressure the quarterback ‒ or, rather, his lack thereof.
For the most part, Branch was utilized as a space clogger while showing flashes as a penetrating run stuffer. However, his physical attributes do not appear to transition well to rushing the passer, although he has his moments.
With the Patriots in the shotgun and spreading out the formation, Branch is on the field for an obvious passing play (a rarity for him):
Aligned over center Ryan Wendell, the nose tackle will drive outside with his first step and then go inside with a swim move to beat the block. Branch proceeds to get tripped up as he heads towards quarterback Tom Brady, but he does help collapse the pocket and force Brady to step into a hit and throw an incomplete pass.
Sign Him Up?
Assuming Branch has not lost a significant step since last season, the University of Michigan product would serve as an upgrade to an inconsistent New England run defense, perhaps replacing Chris Jones at defensive end in the Patriots 3-4 front on early running downs and short-yardage situations.
With Branch having experience in various fronts and schemes with both one- and two-gap responsibilities, his skill set would seem to mesh with New England’s defensive philosophy.
While he is a short-area burst player that won’t address the loss of Chandler Jones’ pass rushing ability, Branch has the ideal size and strength of a run-stuffing defensive end with the versatility to also hold up at the nose tackle position. Immovable at times, Branch’s ability to clog the middle, stay situationally aware, and get around the occasional block for penetration into the backfield would be a welcomed addition to a currently thin defensive line rotation.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.