One of the more curious developments in their Week 14 snap counts was the fact that the Detroit Lions scaled back the role of rookie defensive back Brian Branch to just 37 snaps—or 52 percent of the defensive plays. Branch, one of the team’s second-round picks this year, has been arguably the best player in Detroit’s secondary. As a result, he had played at least 93 percent of the defensive snaps in each game from Weeks 8-13.
So why did the Lions scale back his involvement against the Bears? According to defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, the Lions wanted Branch to focus solely on the nickel cornerback position, rather than splitting time at safety.
“The thing that I wanted to do with that player is let him focus in on one job,” Glenn said. “I look at it the same was as when I had Chauncey (Gardner-Johnson) when I was in New Orleans. He was playing some safety, playing some nickel. Man, there was a lot within that, because of what we asked those guys at that position to do. So I wanted to make sure to dial it back with him, let him focus on the nickel, let him play nickel. I thought it was a really good game for him.”
When asked to clarify if there was too much on his plate before, Glenn did not agree with that statement.
“I don’t want to say that. It was a decision that I wanted to make so he can concentrate on the nickel spot and really get that down,” Glenn said. “He’s a damn good player at that spot, and I want to make sure he plays (it) as much as possible.”
Branch did have a solid statistical game against the Bears. He allowed just two receptions for 15 yards on three targets, per PFF. He also tallied two defensive stops and a pressure on one of his two pass rushing opportunities. But it’s also fair to wonder if the Lions defense would have benefitted from him being out there more.
Glenn also noted that part of the motivation to keep Branch solely at nickelback was to give third-year safety Ifeatu Melifonwu as many snaps there as possible. Last week, Melifonwu—who had been previously dealing with a hand injury—replaced Tracy Walker at safety and played all but one defensive snap. That is a trend that will continue, according to Glenn.
“We just thought this was the week to give him a chance to go out there and start and see how he did,” Glenn said. “I think he did a pretty good job. Listen, it’s his first time starting in a while, and there were some mistakes in there just like any other player. But I think he did a pretty good job, and we’re going to continue to move in that direction to see how he does.”
The Lions made one more significant change in their secondary against the Bears, working veteran cornerback Kindle Vildor in rotation with the struggling Jerry Jacobs. Glenn made it sound like they will continue to move in that direction as well but made it clear they still value Jacobs.
“(Vildor) is a calming presence, he’s a guy that’s been around before, he’s very smart, and he understands exactly what we’re doing,” Glenn said. “We want to continue to try to utilize that.
“Listen, Jerry’s not a guy that we’re throwing away. I don’t want anybody to think that. There’s still skins on the wall with that player, also. He’s done some good things for us. But the thing is, we’ve got to do everything we can to play at a high level, and we’re going to continue to find the guys that are going to do that for us.”