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A closer look at the Patriots’ inactives: Without Branch, Hernandez could have more active role

12.18.11 at 3:08 pm ET
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The Patriots inactives for Sunday’s game against the Broncos in Denver are as follows: safety Patrick Chung, running back Shane Vereen, linebacker Brandon Spikes, offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer, wide receiver Deion Branch, center Nick McDonald and quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Chung (foot), Spikes (knee), Vollmer (back and foot) and Vereen (hamstring) have struggled with injuries over the last few weeks — they were all listed as “questionable” on the injury report on Friday — so it’s no surprise they’ve been deactivated. Meanwhile Branch was not on the injury list on Friday, but was apparently dinged up at the end of the Redskins game last week with a groin injury and was not in the lineup down the stretch last Sunday.

With Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly on the shelf the last couple of weeks because of injury, McDonald saw a sizable chunk of time at the center spot, but it appears that both Wendell and Connolly are good to go today. (Sunday marks the first time Connolly is active since Nov. 21.) Other notables who aren’t on the inactive list include defensive lineman Gerard Warren, who was a healthy scratch last week.

As for those who should see extra time because of the inactives, figure that the Patriots could lean on part-time safety Matthew Slater for some depth in the secondary, as well as Ross Ventrone, who was just re-signed to the 53-man roster. They’ll provide support for a group that includes James Ihedigbo and Sergio Brown. At linebacker, even though Spikes is out again, New England has some good depth at the spot with Dane Fletcher starting to get into more of an active role again. No Vollmer at the right tackle spot means that rookie Nate Solder will likely go wire-to-wire at that position, and perhaps more of a role for fellow rookie offensive lineman Marcus Cannon. Meanwhile, Vereen hasn’t had much of an impact as a rookie, so his absence is likely negligible. And Mallett has been inactive for all but one game this season as the extra quarterback.

As for Branch, that’s likely the most intriguing inactive of the day. The veteran receiver has been a steady, dependable presence on the outside for quarterback Tom Brady. Without him, Brady will lean on tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Wes Welker even more than he already does. This will also open up options in the passing game for tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has some of the versatility needed to fill in on the outside. In addition, wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Tiquan Underwood could also get more looks.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Spikes, Chad Ochocinco, Dan Connolly
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