Patriots DE-OLB Jermaine Cunningham has played well this season after head coach Bill Belichick lauded his improvement this past offseason. Cunningham is third on the team with six QB hits and has seen his playing time increase over the past couple weeks — he played in 89 percent of snaps vs. the Jets. But Cunningham was suspended four games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, and the Pats now must fill the void. A reason for the extra opportunities, though, is why “next man up” isn’t as simple. Rookie DE Chandler Jones missed the Week 12 game and could miss the Week 13 game. Cunningham got increased playing time for Jones, who has an ankle injury.
We hear that the top players to fill in for Cunningham, until Jones is back on a full-time basis, will be Trevor Scott and rookie Justin Francis. Scott was a veteran acquisition this past spring. “Trevor is smart, he works hard (and) he’s in very good condition. He’s a good athlete,” Belichick said last Tuesday. “He can run, he’s quick and he’s long, he’s got good length at the end of the line of scrimmage to handle some of those bigger tackles or tight ends.”
Belichick also compared Scott to Rob Ninkovich for his versatility, a key trait in Patriots defensive players. Francis has been versatile as well and could be thrust into more action. Francis was a player we heard the team was high on in the preseason, helping the undrafted rookie make the team. He has two QB hits this season. We also might see more of third-round rookie DE Jake Bequette.
One daily observer pointed out that the Patriots could use more 3-4 looks, with Jones and Cunningham out, to go to their strengths at linebacker. They opened in that formation against the Jets, and rookie LB Dont’a Hightower notched a sack. The Patriots have been successful plugging guys in on the O-line without any drop-off, and we’ll see over the next couple weeks how it looks in the front seven.