FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In an effort to spice up their pass rush, the Patriots deployed Jermaine Cunningham as an interior attacker more than usual during last Sunday’s victory against the Buffalo Bills.
Cunningham, who has played defensive end in the 4-3 and outside linebacker in the 3-4 throughout his career, lined up as a defensive tackle as far back as training camp. He had played the role in some sub packages earlier in the week, including a set used during obvious passing situations in recent games.
But Sunday, Cunningham was on the field as a defensive tackle in a four-man front for 33 of 71 plays, plus another in which he was called offside. He had one sack and one fumble recovery, and didn’t register any other statistics.
However, Cunningham still made an impact. He drew a holding penalty, had one hurry and redirected Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick into Rob Ninkovich for a sack on another occasion.
Cunningham won his matchup on 11 of those 33 snaps.
He was single-teamed 24 times, double-teamed eight times and triple-teamed once. And consider this: The Bills only double-teamed Cunningham twice in the first half, so they really ratcheted up their attention toward him as the game progressed, which was a sign he was giving them problems.
There’s a logic to getting Cunningham on the field in the untraditional fashion. He’s a speed rusher with a decent amount of power, but his quickness can throw off interior offensive linemen who are used to blocking much bigger and slower, but stronger players.
For comparison’s sake, it’s like a hitter in baseball looking at a Tim Wakefield knuckleball for eight innings before stepping into the box against a Jonathan Papelbon fastball.
Cunningham subbed in for Kyle Love in those situations, which put him on the field with Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork and Chandler Jones, who have been the Patriots’ best collection of front-line pass rushers this season.
“He has been productive,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said of Cunningham’s efforts. “Just trying to get our best guys on the field, best pass rushers on the field. He’s one of them, and he’s had production for us. Really, it’s grown. He’s got a better feel for it. He handles a lot of communication there at the line of scrimmage in terms of what games we’re running and things like that. He’s done a good job of it.”
It was an adjustment that was reminiscent of a look they debuted last season in Week 10 against the Jets. They utilized Wilfork and Brandon Deaderick on the inside with Andre Carter and Mark Anderson on the outside. Deaderick had been more of a defensive end prior to that game, and it created a pass-rushing element that generated five sacks and nine quarterback hits in that game.
The Cunningham move didn’t make quite as big of an impact Sunday, as the Patriots recorded three sacks and four quarterback hits, but the intent was essentially the same. It gave them a pass-rushing look that frustrated the Bills, and they dared the Bills to run on them with that package. Buffalo didn’t accept the challenge, however, rushing just six times for 37 yards when Cunningham lined up as a defensive tackle.
Part of that has to do with the Patriots’ willingness to put him on the field in likely passing situations, but the Bills didn’t try to expose the matchup, either. That might have played into the decision to keep using Cunningham.
It’s also possible this wrinkle could lead to other new pass-rushing packages. On one occasion in Sunday’s second quarter, the Patriots rushed Jones and Deaderick on the inside, and Ninkovich and linebacker Dont’a Hightower on the outside. If the Patriots sub out Deaderick for Cunningham with that look, they might have something similar to the Giants’ NASCAR package, which includes four defensive ends to create a speed advantage.
But save that for another day.