An old familiar face stood out among the four wide receivers taking the field for the Patriots on Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Deion Branch made his
preseason debut for New England on offense with a start at wide
receiver. The 11-year veteran was targeted only four times by the
Patriots backup quarterbacks and still led the Patriots with 51
receiving yards on three catches.
"I felt pretty good. I was
excited. I was happy to be back on the field," said Branch in the
locker room following the game.
Heading into training camp,
Branch found himself fighting for his job. There are limited roster
spots at receiver with the return of Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth
to the Patriots; the signing of big name free agent Brandon Lloyd; and
Wes Welker garnering the franchise tag.
The Patriots also sign
lesser-known free agent Jesse Holley from the Cowboys, who had seven
receptions for 169 yards in 2011. The other two significant players
listed on the team's receiver depth chart are Julian Edelman and
Matthew Slater, who serve prominent roles on special teams.
With this log-jam of receiver
talent on the roster, many Patriot pundits viewed the 2012 training
camp as possibly being Branch's last in New England.
"Every year is competition,"
said the diplomatic Branch.
Despite skipping the first
preseason game against New Orleans, Branch practice steadily since with
all three units during camp. Monday night's second preseason game
against Philadelphia was his first big chance to stake his claim for
his roster spot.
With two backup quarterbacks
throwing him the ball, Branch made three big plays at key times during
the game to keep scoring drives alive. During a first quarter
drive, the Patriots faced a third-and-five from the Philadelphia 49
yard line, Branch caught a short Ryan Mallett pass cutting left across
the field in tight coverage and took it for a 20 yard gain. The play
set up the Patriots first field goal.
In the second quarter and
Brian Hoyer under center, the Patriots faced a key third-and-13 from
the Eagles 28 yard line. Branch bailed the Patriots offense out again
by catching a deep in-cut, squaring his body perfectly between the ball
and the defender for 17 yards, again making the grab in tight coverage.
The catch set up the Patriots only touchdown for the game.
His third catch may have been
the toughest of the three receptions. Running down the left sideline in
the third quarter, Branch had to cut the route short on an underthrown
Mallett pass. He was able to secure the ball in his breadbasket with a
defender stuck to his left hip. The play was good for 14 yards to the
Eagles 41 yard line and set up a Patriots field goal.
"I thought he competed well
and made three pretty good catches for us in pretty tight coverage and
traffic so that's always good to see," said Patriots coach Bill
Belichick during Tuesday's press conference.
In comparison, Stallworth had
a difficult game. He was targeted six times, but only managed to pull
in one 20 yard reception. He failed to show much fight for the ball on
his other opportunities.
Edelman fared slightly better
with two receptions for 24 yards; but rookie Jeremy Ebert looked slow
and failed to impress after being targeted eight times with only three
receptions for 18 yards, including a handful of key dropped passes.
"We played the players that we
played and we told them they should expect to play a lot and a lot of
them did," said Belichick. "That's kind of how that worked out. Deion
did play a lot and of course he didn't play last week so this was
really his first game action even though he's been out on the practice
field a lot.
"He's worked hard through camp
and it was good to have him out there last night," he said.
A pair of veteran wide receivers were on the list of those released by the Patriots to comply with…