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As we enter the 11th year of the Tom Brady era, the Pats seem once again poised to make another Super Bowl run.
And while this seems to be the case every year, after the roster overhaul that has taken place this offseason there seems to be more urgency this year than in the past. Most of their newly acquired players are veterans including Chad Ochocinco (34), Andre Carter (32), Shaun Ellis (34) and now Brian Waters (34).
Most importantly, Brady is getting up their in years, now at 34 years of age. With a veteran team one would assume that the players who will impact the team most would be veteran players. However, one player who’s success could be the difference between a good Patriot team and a great Patriot team is second year outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham.
One of reasons this year is especially important for the Patriots is that they are coming off a brutal 28-21-playoff defeat to the rival New York Jets. At a glance at the box score it appears the game came down to Mark Sanchez out playing Brady.
But, anyone who knows football even remotely knows this could not be the entire story. If you look a little closer you will see that the reason for this statistical anomaly was the difference in the pass rush between the two teams. Brady was sacked five times and harassed constantly by the Jets, while Sanchez was not sacked once.
The Patriots have tried to address the problem on the O-line by drafting Nate Solder with their first round pick, re-signing Matt Light and Logan Mankins, and, most recently, by signing five time pro-bowl guard Brian Waters. While the Patriots have tried to upgrade their pass rush through free agency and trades, a key to their success at rushing the passer remains Cunningham.
Cunningham was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft. In just the second week of the season he replaced Tully Banta-Cain as the starting outside linebacker. Although he started 11 games Cunningham was only able to record one sack and 34 tackles.
But, the Patriots were confident enough in his potential to release Banta-Cain, one year after his 10-sack season, and hand Cunningham the starting outside linebacker position.
Now Cunningham is expected to be the leading man at the position responsible for the most sacks in the 3-4.
In college Cunningham recorded 19.5 sacks at Florida, but his highest sack total was just seven. He played defensive end in college, which is similar to the 3-4 outside linebacker, but not the same, and the transition could be one reason for his low production as a rookie.
Cunningham’s 2011 preseason has been uneven. On Aug. 7, ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss called out Cunningham as someone who has been “blocked easier than I thought he would be.”
After recording a sack in the Patriots’ first preseason game, he sat out the next three. Though he should be ready to play week one, the Pats can’t be sure of what to expect out of him.
While it is important that Cunningham has a productive year, the Patriots shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations about him. In college he recorded six-to-seven sacks per year, and that’s about the best the Patriots can expect from him this season.
The Patriots have tried to lessen Cunningham’s burden through their offseason acquisitions. All three new defensive linemen have been spectacular in the past,Anderson Ellis and Carter have had double-digit sack seasons and Albert Haynesworth is a two-time all-pro, but all four are coming off disappointing seasons.
A common theme of all these players is that they have performed better in 4-3 defenses than 3-4, which lends many to believe that the Pats may be soon transitioning into a 4-3 defense.
But, as long as the Patriots are mainly a 3-4 defense, the consistent production of Cunningham will remain a key to their success.