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With Wright out, Cunningham on the spot

Posted by Greg A. Bedard  October 13, 2011 02:24 PM

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The Patriots made the right move today by placing defensive lineman Mike Wright on injured reserve after problems with concussions.

Wright was dinged again in the season opener against the Miami Dolphins, which gave him at least a second concussion in a calendar year.

Wright is a football player through and through, so he may shut it down for a while and give it another run next year. Whether that’s wise or not is up to him, agent Buddy Baker and the doctors.

As for the Patriots moving forward, this is not an unexpected loss, but it’s a big one. Wright has been the team’s best pass rusher on the line for the past couple of years, and it’s not like the Patriots have an overabundance of those.

It would be nice if the Patriots could find another pass rusher via trade (deadline is Tuesday), but that avenue isn’t very fruitful. Teams are reticent to give up talent only six weeks into the season.

That puts the onus back on the roster, and having already lost another good pass rusher in Myron Pryor, the roster is getting squeezed.

Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis playing 60 percent of snaps, at 32 and 34 years old, is probably not optimal for them lasting the season and beyond.

The Patriots need young, effective legs on that line. They need Jermaine Cunningham to have an impact.

He’s only played 33 snaps this season, and most of those haven’t been impactful. Needless to say, much more was expected from the 2010 second-round pick, but a series of events haven’t helped Cunningham, including the lockout and a training camp injury.

“I think one of the things that Jermaine has had to work through is the time that he missed in training camp and the preseason games at the end of preseason; for a second year player, especially,” Bill Belichick said this week. “With him, last year really playing outside linebacker and doing that and this year we transitioned into a little bit more of a multiple defensive front, it’s been a little bit of an adjustment for him. Missing that time didn’t help him any.”

Cunningham didn’t show much improvement with his pass rush skills in training camp before his injury, which was disappointing. But a switch back to playing more with his hand on the ground, should have helped Cunningham a little bit. That hasn’t been seen, although a groin injury is about the worst you can get for a pass rusher. Still, when Cunningham is right, he does have strength and speed, and will make plays on hustle even when his pass rush moves are limited.

Barring a trade, the Patriots are going to need much more from Cunningham now that Wright has been lost for the season. Their expected deep line rotation has vanished with injuries to Wright and Pryor, and with Albert Haynesworth in and out of the lineup.

Belichick said there is hope for Cunningham.

“He’s worked hard and he’s done a good job to get back on the field and get rehabbed and get back out there,” Belichick said. “He’s improving; he’s gotten a little better each week. I think he’s definitely on the upswing here and a guy that we hope will be able to contribute for us.”

With Wright gone, the Patriots can’t hope from a contribution from Cunningham; they need production.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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