The third-year defensive end had the tough task of replacing rookie Chandler Jones as an every-down player when Jones left the game with an ankle injury. Between playing Jones’ defensive end spot and Cunningham’s usual third down defensive tackle position, the former Gator was getting into the Colts’ backfield on almost every play, giving right tackle Winston Justice fits on the field, especially in the first half.
Cunningham was such a problem the Colts had to start using double teams to contain the Florida product, which allowed Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love more opportunities to penetrate the offensive line. When the Patriots started blitzing their linebackers, they were giving Luck even less time, forcing bad throws from the rookie quarterback.
It may not have been a coincidence that the Patriots started rushing Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower more when Jones came out of the game. Bill Belichick surely could foresee that their pass defense could struggle even more than usual when their best rusher came out of the game, and he compensated by sending more players. Belichick should think about blitzing more in general, even when Jones can return. Sure, it puts less men back in coverage, but with Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard more than capable in man coverage, the team can afford that risk. Especially with Devin McCourty giving the back end of the defense more stability at safety.
One area the team could miss Jones even more is their stellar run defense. One of the rookie’s biggest strengths as a player is setting the edge against the run, using his long arms to pick off running backs trying to run around their left tackle. Cunningham isn’t as strong at the line as Jones, and can be stood up and pushed back more easily. This would typically seem like a terrible idea, but it may be smart for the team to start using a bigger defensive lineman, like Brandon Deaderick, in on first and second down, or even to showcase more 3-4 alignments with Jones out.
Jones has been ruled out for Thursday night’s matchup against the Jets with his injured ankle. Just like Rob Gronkowski on offense, everyone is replaceable on defense, even if it includes using multiple players in different roles. Jones has been the best player on the Patriots’ defense this season, but that’s mostly due to his versatility. Using a player like Deaderick on obvious rushing downs and Cunningham on obvious passing downs may not achieve the same level versatility that Jones did, but it can still be effective.
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