Jermaine Cunningham had his best game of the season against Buffalo with a sack and forced fumble.
Chandler Jones is a Rookie of the Year candidate.
Rob Ninkovich is a game-changer with four forced fumbles.
While the Patriots’ starting defensive ends continue to draw the spotlight, their shadows blanket Jermaine Cunningham.
Cameras and voice recorders rarely approached Cunningham this season. He hasn’t been the focal point of any replays. But quietly he’s getting the job done.
Cunningham has been a part of New England’s pass rush package from the season opener. It was a role once filled by Mike Wright and previously by Myron Pryor.
In Cunningham’s new role, he lines up at defensive tackle. Coaches hope his quickness and athleticism gives him an advantage over interior offensive linemen.
Cunningham has been inconsistent at times, though he’s showing signs of improvement. Cunningham had just three pressures through the first seven games, but has 6.5 in the past two games, including 2.5 against the Bills, according to The Boston Globe’s Greg A. Bedard’s personal tabulations.
Cunningham came into the season with a lot to prove. After a promising rookie season, Cunningham played in nine games in 2011, had one tackle and finished the season on injured reserve.
The pressure was on Cunningham after New England added some pass-rushers to the team in 2012. Besides drafting Jones (first round), LB Dont’a Hightower (first round) and DE Jake Bequette (fourth round), the Patriots signed free agent DE/OLB Trevor Scott and rookie free agent DE Justin Francis.
Cunningham responded to the challenge. He was one of 10 Patriots honored by head coach Bill Belichick for being an offseason top performer for attendance and progress made in the weight room, on the practice field and during organized team activities.
Jones has been better than expected with six sacks after nine games. And Hightower is an effective blitzer with two sacks.
As for the other challengers, Cunningham held them off. Cunningham has 2.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries this season. And while he doesn’t have the sack numbers, he’s helping teammates bag quarterbacks. Jones owes one sack to Cunningham, and Ninkovich can thank Cunningham for one against the Bills.
And while Ninkovich was celebrated for his strip-sack of New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez, Cunningham got to Sanchez first. Cunningham wrapped Sanchez up around his legs, holding him in place for Ninkovich to land the coup d’etat.
Also under Cunningham’s belt are two starts this season when Hightower was sidelined with a hamstring injury and Ninkovich was shifted to outside linebacker to fill the void.
The hard work is paying off, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Cunningham had his best game against Buffalo. Cunningham recovered a fumble that the offense cashed in for seven points, a six-yard sack and he drew a holding penalty early in the game.
The performance got Cunningham a mention in the Boston Herald in an analysis of the Patriots pass rush and Cunningham’s increased involvement.
Not a headline, but that’s OK. If he continues to make plays, we’ll be hearing Cunningham’s name more often.
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