The challenge of conversion

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The transition being undertaken by rookies like New England’s Jermaine Cunningham and Miami’s Koa Misi isn’t exactly breaking new ground.

Those outside linebacker spots in the 3-4 are, in a lot of ways, stand-up, 9-technique defensive end positions. And so every year, college ends come into the NFL and learn how to play on their feet.

It’s something I addressed with an expert on the subject — Baltimore Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs — in my Sunday Notes last week.

Suggs emphasized learning the scheme to bridge the gap from college to pro. Before he reached a comfort level there, he says, he was a target for offenses.

“It took me a year to learn the defense in general and cover,” Suggs told me. “[Ex-Raven and Patriot] Adalius [Thomas] helped me a lot. … AD told me, basically, to learn all about the coverage, learn where your help is, and learn to funnel guys, because everyone’s running option routes, and you can funnel a receiver to your help, and you have Ed Reed over the top.

“AD was phenomenal with that. He wasn’t one of those ‘big speech’ guys, he was more of a personal leader with guys on our unit, one-on-one. He was great with that.”

Obviously, Thomas won’t be that guy for Cunningham here next year. (Aside: AD’s options might be limited, period, though the positive rep he had in Baltimore suggests it’s way more about the on-field trouble Thomas had than any of the drama last year. He’s not the first guy to not fit in with New England.)

Maybe it’ll be Tully Banta-Cain. Or someone else. The key, Suggs said, is keeping your head up through some of the growing pains.


Suggs had to endure a couple seasons of quarterbacks shouting “Check 55!!”, and adjusting to throw at him. But the end result was his becoming a better and more versatile football player.

The Patriots’ hopes for Cunningham would have to be that he’ll embrace the challenge, partly out of necessity and partly out of a desire to become a weapon for the defense as a whole.

“It makes you a more dangerous player,” said Suggs. “Teams can’t key on you. When you’re just rushing, or always blitzing, they know the pressure’s coming. But if you can do it all, and drop in coverage, the defense can be disguised better, and you’ll make more plays.”

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