FOXBORO, Mass. — The drop-off in Jermaine Cunningham's playing time has been one of the more surprising elements to the Patriots' season, and it's unclear why he hasn't been able to progress during his second year in the NFL.
Cunningham has been a healthy scratch during the last two games, marking the first time he's been out for non-injury reasons. The 2010 second-round draft pick out of Florida maintained Friday that he's not letting his lack of playing time affect his confidence.
"I'm just trying to get better, help the team win, however they need me," Cunningham said. "I'm just coming in here today, just trying to get better."
Cunningham played well as a defensive end in Florida's four-man line, so the new system this season in New England shouldn't really factor into his lack of production. Actually, Cunningham said the two systems are "pretty similar."
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick went in-depth on his pre-draft work with Cunningham by speaking extensively with former Gators head coach Urban Meyer. And Cunningham played well as a rookie, morphing into the team's best edge-setter as an outside linebacker in run fits.
Yet, Belichick was noncommittal when asked this week what Cunningham needs to do better to get back onto the field.
"I'd like to see every player be able to perform at the high level and be productive," Belichick said. "That would be true of every player."
The Patriots have had a lot of depth on the defensive line this season, and Cunningham figures to be battling with defensive ends Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Mark Anderson and Brandon Deaderick for playing time. Carter certainly isn't going anywhere, as he's been one of the Patriots' best defensive players all season, and Deaderick is coming off of two strong performances, including a start last week against the Giants. Anderson has been used fairly effectively as a situational pass rusher.
"The performance of the players is relative to each other," Belichick said when pressed further about Cunningham's playing time. "That's not really anything that a coach can control. You evaluate, you let them compete, you let them play. Somebody is ahead of somebody else. Somebody is behind somebody else. That's the way it is. In my opinion, the players that play the best play the most. Players that don't play as well have to earn their opportunity for more playing time. I don't know any other way to do it."
Cunningham, who is quiet when dealing with the media, wouldn't get into specifics. He wouldn't pinpoint one particular area that has caused his drop in playing time, and he also said there isn't one exact thing he needs to improve to get back onto the field for game days.
"Working on football, working on everything, just trying to make all areas better, just get better," Cunningham said. "I'm just trying to get better, man. I'm just trying to get better."