|Rookie linebacker Jermaine Cunningham may be the pass rusher the Patriots have needed the last couple of seasons. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)|
Push is coming to shove
Cunningham has a sudden impact
FOXBOROUGH — Something about Patriots rookie linebacker Jermaine Cunningham got on the nerves of Ravens fullback Le’Ron McClain last week.
In the midst of overtime — when teams want their players to be most poised — McClain lost it. On second and 9 from the Baltimore 20, Ravens running back Ray Rice was stopped in his tracks for no gain. As the play ended, there was some shoving; McClain pushed Cunningham, causing the rookie to fall back on his teammates. A penalty flag sailed and McClain was hit with the personal foul, a 10-yarder.
The drive ended with the Ravens punting, and the Patriots found a way to score on the next series to take the 23-20 OT victory. So what did Cunningham say?
“I couldn’t even really tell you what I said to him, but that’s in the past,’’ Cunningham said with a grin. “The penalty went our way, came out with a [win].’’
McClain later said Cunningham got in a shove that the officials didn’t see. But what was clear was the way Cunningham was able to breeze by the Ravens offensive line to create a little chaos. Against the Ravens, Cunningham was credited with his first career sack and forced Joe Flacco to fumble, which the quarterback was able to recover.
“That’s my mentality going into every game, to go out and be productive and make plays,’’ Cunningham said.
As the season moves along, Cunningham is getting more chances to show what he can do. He provided the Patriots with a burst of energy from the outside and played significant minutes against the Ravens. He has played in all five games and started at outside linebacker the last three.
“I thought Jermaine played very aggressively,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “He certainly had some good plays, some big plays. He made a good pass rush there, got a holding penalty on [Michael] Oher, made some good plays in the running game.
“He’s still got a long way to go, but he’s working hard, and I thought he did play very aggressively, which is what we need at that position.’’
Cunningham could help a Patriots pass rush that has been seen only in glimpses the last couple of seasons. The Patriots grabbed Cunningham with the 53d overall pick (second round) of the draft out of Florida. They got a 6-foot-3-inch, 260-pound player with some experience also at defensive end.
In four seasons at Florida, Cunningham had 19.5 sacks, 10th most in school history. He started 38 of 45 games and collected 152 total tackles in a college career that included a national championship.
The success Cunningham had was not a surprise to Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who was Florida’s defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator from 2005-07. Mattison recruited Cunningham and developed a bond with him, finding ways to motivate him.
“I recruited him, I had him every day of his life for three years, and my communication with him was always like his father was with him,’’ said Mattison. “And that was that if he did something that I didn’t think was in the right interest of him, I would let him know.
“My goal always was for Jermaine to continue to be the great young man that he was raised to be and not to let him slip when he got to college. And he didn’t. He did absolutely everything we asked him to do that way.’’
At Florida, Cunningham also developed a friendship with linebacker Brandon Spikes, whom the Patriots selected nine picks after Cunningham. Spikes said the two were surprised to learn they would begin their NFL careers together, but it made the transition easier.
There are times when Cunningham comes across as a quiet personality, but don’t be fooled, Spikes said.
“He ain’t quiet,’’ Spikes said. “He just has to get to know you. He’s a little different guy, but I used to tell him I’d never forget him, ever.’’
Cunningham is hoping his play on the field is memorable, too. But he had to wait a while before he was healthy enough to see how he would measure up in the NFL. He missed most of the preseason with an injury and didn’t get much playing time at a point that can be critical for a rookie.
“That kind of set me back, but that’s what we go out and practice for, just to stay healthy and just help the team any way possible,’’ Cunningham said.
Once he got on the field, it became clear that Cunningham could contribute. Former Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett said he can sense Cunningham has the attitude to be an effective pass rusher.
“Pass rushing is a passion, an attitude,’’ said Tippett. “Everybody doesn’t get it. Everyone can’t be coached that way, but when you find someone like him that has that passion and that want to go get it done, you kind of stand up, pay attention, and take notice of it and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty nice to see.’
“The game’s not based on that, but it’s like every little bit that you can contribute to the defense is important and it’s awesome. It isn’t the be all, end all, getting to the quarterback, but still if you can get that pressure and get your defense off the field, that’s awesome.’’
As Mattison watched Cunningham mature at Florida, the coach believed Cunningham was developing into a player that an NFL team would want, especially a team looking for a pass rusher.
“He’s got very, very strong hands and he’s a very explosive football player,’’ Mattison said. “The biggest thing that has made him what he is, is that he always wants to be as good as he can be. And that’s the key with him.’’
After wrapping up a successful week against the Ravens, Cunningham said he doesn’t feel he can be satisfied.
“I’ll probably never be where I want to be,’’ he said. “My theory is, you always get better. That’s my job.’’