With Chandler Jones‘ return from an ankle injury still uncertain, the Patriots were already thin enough along the defensive line. Now, Jermaine Cunningham‘s four-game suspension only serves to enhance that deficiency.
Cunningham, who has emerged as a big contributor on defense this season, was suspended four games by the NFL on Monday, after violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. He won’t be eligible to return to the Patriots — for practices or games — until the final week of the regular season.
His absence will leave a big hole in the Patriots’ defense, as his versatility has been important to the defensive line’s success this season. A great depth option and situational player, Cunningham has provided Bill Belichick with flexibility along the line. He’s spent much of the year switching between the defensive end and tackle positions, filling the role as both a pass rusher and run stopper.
In recent weeks, Cunningham has spent more time along the outside, filling in for Jones at defensive end. He was a more than capable substitute for Jones, too, piling up eight tackles, including one tackle for loss against the Jets, and wreaking havoc on both Andrew Luck and Mark Sanchez inside the pocket.
His production, 23 tackles and 2.5 sacks on the season, isn’t irreplaceable. His skill set and versatility, on the other hand, will be very difficult to make up for. And considering Jones’ uncertain playing status, some other players will be forced to step in and fill the glaring gap on defense.
Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace have done it before for the Patriots, having an impact along the line in each of the past few seasons. But both are 300-plus pounders who don’t work so well on the outside. Trevor Scott also has the experience necessary to account for Cunningham’s absence, but his impact has been small, if felt at all, this season.
Rookie lineman Justin Francis, who’s played sparingly along the line this year, and Jake Bequette, who’s been active on game day just twice, should both have opportunities to play. If they do, though, they aren’t likely to make serious contributions. That means the best possible solution for replacing Cunningham will need to come from a group effort. But while challenging, it is possible.
Combining the play of Deaderick and Brace on the inside with some added reps for Scott and Francis on the edge, Cunningham’s role can be accounted for with minimal impact. The biggest contribution would obviously be Jones’ reinsertion into the defensive scheme, as it would alleviate a lot of the pressure likely to be felt by guys like Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Rob Ninkovich. But that subject won’t even be broached until Wednesday’s practice.
It will truly take a team effort to fill the void, especially with difficult dates with the 49ers and Texans slated within the next four weeks. But while it will be a difficult road for the Patriots to traverse, by no means is it be impossible.