By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots were dealt a blow to their defensive line depth when DE/DT Jermaine Cunningham was suspended on Monday for a failed drug test for PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) according to NFL sources.
Cunningham has been suspended for four games for the violation. Cunningham, in his third season, has rejuvenated his career with the Patriots. After nearly not playing at all in 2011 and being a healthy scratch many times for a defense that ranked 31st in the NFL last season, he was looked upon as a bubble player to even make the roster.
But through 11 games in 2012, Cunningham has 23 tackles (15 solo) and 2.5 sacks, has been playing 50.3 percent of the teamâ€™s total snaps. He supplanted veteran DE Trevor Scott as the teamâ€™s first defensive linemen off the bench in sub-packages.
His suspension will test the Patriots depth as Cunningham plays both defensive end spots as well as defensive tackle in lighter sub-packages. Especially where he spells the defensive tackles, this will leave the Patriots thin. After Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, the team hasnâ€™t got much production from other tackles Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace. The signing and release of Jonathan Fanene loom large now as they have little depth behind the starters.
A look at the percentage of snaps played in sub vs base defense the past few weeks highlight the need for depth at DT. Against the Jets, the Patriots played in subpackages for 49 of 72 snaps and base just 22 of 72. Against the Colts the Patriots played in sub for 54 of 78 defensive snaps, again only playing base defense 22 of 78.
Defensive end should be set with the underrated Rob Ninkovich on one side, with rookie Chandler Jones sidelined with an ankle injury, look for the Patriots to use Scott more and spell him with Justin Francis to off-set the losses. Rookie Jake Bequette has had little on-field time yet but if Jonesâ€™ injury continues to draw out, look for the team to have Bequette to be active and perhaps get some snaps.
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots adjust their subpackage pass rushers moving forward the next few weeks.