During Cunningham’s four-game suspension, the Patriots managed seven sacks, which is just about on par with their season average of two per game, but the middling unit has found even more trouble pressuring the quarterback of late.
The Patriots don’t boast a very productive pass rush as it is, ranking 22nd in the NFL with just 30 sacks on the season, but without Cunningham the problem became something of an epidemic. They managed five sacks in their first two games without the third-year lineman, but in the past two, which included a loss to San Francisco and an ugly win in Jacksonville, they’ve sacked the quarterback just twice (once each game).
So, Cunningham’s return should offer his teammates some relief along the line and provide some help for a front seven that could use a bit of a kick-start. Cunningham doesn’t bring the elite pass rushing ability of a Chandler Jones or even Rob Ninkovich, as his 6-foot-3, 255-pound frame isn’t the most suitable for getting after the quarterback in his role as an interior rusher. But he did record 2 1/2 sacks through 11 games earlier this season and, maybe even more importantly, he has a rangy skill set.
Beyond chasing down quarterbacks, Cunningham has proved to be a serviceable run stopper and also adds some versatility to a pretty rigid defensive line. He’s able to play both inside and out along the line, allowing for some flexibility, which should be helpful for a team so keen on running multiple defensive schemes.
Jones and Ninkovich will continue to be the team’s starters on the edge, as has been the case for most of the season, but Cunningham’s addition to the active roster should allow some other guys to fill back into their normal roles. Brandon Deaderick and Justin Francis can be relied upon less and return to their more limited situational functions, while Trevor Scott, who had two sacks in Cunningham’s absence, will be able to fall back into place as a situational pass rusher — think Mark Anderson‘s last season.
All of that is, of course, contingent on if Cunningham is ready to jump right back into his role or if Bill Belichick feels he’s fit to contribute.
“I think any time a player comes back after an absence for a while — whatever the reasons are don’t matter — that there’s a combination of catching up mentally to what’s going on but also catching up from a technique standpoint and also communication and reaction,” Belichick said. “Really, no matter how much a player runs around a track or does sit ups or whatever, it’s not the same as when the other 21 guys are out there hearing plays called, reacting to what happens on the other side of the play, communicating, making adjustments with your teammates.”
Cunningham wasn’t limited in practice on Wednesday, which would appear to be a good sign for his availability on Sunday — although the team does hold a one-week roster exemption for him. Then again, re-acclimating a player to the game after four weeks away could spell trouble, which is exactly what the Patriots don’t need heading into the playoffs.
Cunningham does add another necessary element to this defense, and his versatility should prove key especially to the pass rush, even if it is only in a limited capacity.