The future of the strong-side defensive end position for the Buffalo Bills is a little murky.
The player who opened the season as the starter, Alex Carrington, was lost to injury in Week Three. His contract is up this year. The player who took his place, Alan Branch, is playing on a one-year deal.
The Bills are going to try to bring both of them back next season.
The good news is even if they only go 1 for 2 in that effort, they should be OK at the position.
At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, Branch has added stoutness to the Buffalo front seven and has kept the Bills from missing Carrington.
“I feel real comfortable in the defense,” said Branch after Wednesday’s practice. “I’ve embraced my role, tried to get in there and plug up the holes, tried to get disruptive in the backfield. I’m embracing the role and hopefully I can go out and keep doing what I’m doing.
“I’m definitely playing to my strength,” Branch said. “I’ve always been a run-stopper since I’ve been playing so I might as well keep doing it.”
As the strong-side end, Branch often plays a 5-technique position, lining up opposite the outside shoulder of the right tackle. At times he’s in a 4-technique, head-up over the tackle.
Either way, it’s not a glamorous position, and it’s not a position that offers the chance to rack up a lot of statistics. Teams like to run to the strong side, toward the 5-technique end. He needs to hold up at the point of attack to allow linebackers to make tackles. He comes off the field in most passing situations.
When the offense passes on first-and-10, he’s not rushing from the blind side, like the weak-side end (Mario Williams). He often also has to work his way through both the tackle and the tight end to get to the quarterback. The 3-technique defensive tackle, lined up opposite the outside shoulder of a guard, usually sees more one-on-one blocks. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus alternate in that role.
The strong-side end has a dirty but important job. Branch knows it.
“I don’t feel like that’s my only strength, playing the run,” Branch said. “But we definitely have some great pass rushers in Kyle and Marcell, so I’m not going to be complaining when we have guys like that getting seven and five sacks at inside techniques. That’s hard to argue with. Those guys are doing a great job.”
Branch has averaged 38 snaps a game, or 48 percent of the Bills’ defensive plays. While Branch doesn’t offer much pass rush, he has some versatility. He’s so big, he’s a plus in short-yardage and goal-line situations. And he’s valuable in spelling Dareus at the nose-tackle spot in the middle of the line.
Carrington, 6-5 and 301, was giving the Bills a little more pass rush. He was averaging 54 snaps over the first three games before tearing a quadriceps muscle. He’s only 26.
Obviously, Carrington’s injury, coming in a contract year, was terrible timing. It’s uncertain what his market value will be in free agency and whether he will be healthy enough to pass a physical when free agency starts.
Branch will be 29 in December. He says he’d like to be back.
“I’d definitely be interested,” he said. “I feel like I have a good rapport with the defensive guys in the room and the coaches. It seems like we’re going places with this team. Who wouldn’t want to come back when you see what we’re doing defensively?”