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Patriots 2011 OLB Preview: Cunningham, Ninkovich

Second year man Jermaine Cunningham will look to improve on a solid rookie season. (Photo by Icon)

Last week, in our Patriots season preview, I took a stab at the inside linebacker position. While in a 3-4 defense, the inside linebackers have responsibility to diagnose plays and maintain gap responsibility; meanwhile, the outside linebackers are geared toward accomplishing one of two goals:

  1. Put their hand in the dirt and rush the opposing Quarterback.
  2. Set the edge of the defensive front thus maintaining the perimeter of the defense.

The variety of tasks assigned to the OLB in a 3-4 defense is the reason we often hear the term, “Hybrid Linebacker.” This means a linebacker who is capable of rushing the QB, or handling other responsibilities.

See: Our 2011 Patriots Previews

The issue in a 3-4 defense is that the lack of linemen creates potential breaches that can be exploited by opposing running backs.

The big fellas in the line can get sucked in and coerced toward the middle, and when teams run to the outside toward the sideline the rest of the defense is left exposed. Therefore, the conundrum for any outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense is figuring out when to get up field and rush the quarterback, or when to stay home and not leave the edge defenseless.

Some can handle this responsibility.

Mike Vrabel was a savant in terms of his decision-making. On the other hand, others tend to struggle finding balance. The recently departed Tully Banta-Cain had issues retaining discipline in run-defense because of his proclivity to go after the quarterback.

Looking at the depth chart, it’s easy to decipher the outside linebacker role in this edition of the Patriots is one of the biggest question marks going into the 2011 campaign.

Jermaine Cunningham

The second-round draft pick from the University of Florida in 2010 had somewhat of a red-shirt season last year. His playing time was sporadic at the start of the season, before becoming ensconced into the fold as the season progressed.

He registered one sack, forced two fumbles, and accumulated 34 tackles throughout the season. Cunningham appears to have the physical gifts to contribute and is viewed as a lock to be a starter. As with so many other players, the concern for Cunningham is whether the lockout will impede his learning curve.

Rob Ninkovich

The 27-year-old journeyman completed his first full season with New England last year after joining the team five games into the 2009 season. Ninkovich is undersized and a liability in rush defense, but also is diligent and intelligent. He intercepted Chad Henne twice last year in a Monday Night Football game in Miami, and recorded four sacks throughout the season.

Ninkovich is like Tim Wakefield — he’s great in small spurts but can lose his effectiveness over time. He’s a bit player, who ideally is on the field for sub-package situations where he’s asked to rush the quarterback.

Matt Roth?

There have been incessant rumors New England is interested in acquiring Matt Roth. Roth is also known as a hard-working pass rusher. In college he played defensive end for Iowa and is known as a player who gets the most out of his abilities. In his short career Roth has amassed 20 sacks. Last year he played for the Cleveland Browns.

Alternative Solution

The Patriots lack depth at the outside linebacker spot. They have brought in 19 defensive linemen which would lead me to believe there could be a shift in defensive philosophy. The murmurings in the media are that New England is considering making the switch to a 4-3 scheme.

This system could be better suited for the personnel currently on the roster.

About Ryan Hadfield

Ryan Hadfield is the author of the weekly Sports Media Musings column at Sports Of Boston. Hadfield is known as one of the top sports media critics in Boston. He also contributes to Boston Sports Media Watch. In November 2011, Hadfield helped launch the new SoB Point Taken blog featuring his podcasts & musings on sports, media and culture. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

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