Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham was amongst the team's 10 offseason award winners in 2012, and carried that strong offseason into a productive training camp.
On Sunday, Cunningham showed up again, sacking quarterback Jake Locker and totaling three tackles in the Patriots' regular-season opener against Tennessee.
Though an end by trade, Cunningham was also used as a pass rusher from the interior of the defensive line on a situational basis. When asked about the advantages to employing such a strategy, head coach Bill Belichick referenced creating a different match-up for offenses to handle in having the quicker, faster Cunningham work from the interior, an area usually contained by big-bodies such as Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love.
"When you move players around, you create different match-ups. [You] just create a different match-up, get one of our productive players on the field, and fortunately he was able to make a couple big plays for us," Belichick said. "The holding penalty he got on the quarterback draw was a big play, he knocked the quarterback down, got a couple pressures, made a couple plays at end. Try to get our productive players on the field and create some different match-ups for the offense to worry about."
The sack for Cunningham was his first since Week 5 of the 2010 season, his rookie year. After impressing that season, Cunningham's production regressed in 2011, when he played in just nine games.
Belichick believes having a full offseason to work was a major advantage for Cunningham.
"I think one of the things that affected Jermaine, like it did a lot of players, is not really having the offseason that he had this year," he said. "He didn't have that opportunity prior to the '11 season, and after the '10 season, at the end of the season, he had surgery on his shoulder, and that limited his offseason that year too. One of the things that's really helped Jermaine this year was right from the beginning, leaving at the end of last year when he was on IR, he trained very hard, he worked hard on all the aspects of his physical conditioning, strength, explosion, flexibility, all that. He had a real good offseason, had a good spring, that offseason led into a good spring, a good spring led into a good training camp, good training camp led into some production in the preseason and the first regular season game."
The coach believes Cunningham is playing at a higher level now than he has during his first two seasons with the team.
"I think it's just a combination of a lot of days of hard work, a lot of sweat, a lot of work in the weight room, a lot of technique work on the field," Belichick continued. "And all that has just made him a better football player in a lot of different areas. I don't know if it was any one thing or just waving a magic wand, it was just day after day of hard work, and he's just at a higher level than where he has been."