Pats' Cunningham Suspended 4 Games

It's a minor setback for a defense that has shown improvement.

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    CHICAGO - DECEMBER 12: Jermaine Cunningham #96 of the New England Patriots rushes past J'Marcus Webb #73 of the Chicago Bears towards Jay Cutler #6 at Soldier Field on December 12, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Patriots defeated the Bears 36-7. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Jermaine Cunningham; J'Marcus Webb; Jay Cutler

    The Patriots may finally have the makings of a defense but one of their young up-and-comers, defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, won't be available for the next four games: he has been suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

    The NFL made the announcement on Monday, although the specific substance that got Cunningham suspended wasn't mentioned.

    Cunningham, 24, can return to the active roster on December 24, and can play in the regular-season finale size days later. The third-year player out of Florida had come on this season, playing in 11 games, recording 23 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. In two previous seasons, he totaled 35 tackles and one sack.

    More details via ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss:

    (Cunningham) had carved out a niche at 3-technique (over the guard's outside shoulder), rushing from an interior position at times in the base defense, while playing a larger role as a designated pass-rusher in sub packages. …

    The timing couldn't be much worse. This was Cunningham's chance to re-establish himself as a starter-caliber player, which he was as a rookie (3-4 outside linebacker) before dipping considerably in his second year.

    Cunningham becomes the second Patriots player this season to be suspended. Rookie running back Brandon Bolden was also suspended earlier this month.

    Not surprisingly, Cunningham's teammates weren't interested in talking about the news.

    "That's something I really don't want to comment on," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "It's unfortunate, but as a team, we'll keep going. ... Every year there is always going to be some issue that you have to deal with. That's just the way football goes. It's another thing we'll just deal with."

    But these are the Patriots, where the expectations are high and Bill Belichick always seems to have a backup plan.

    We have a set-up so as soon as somebody goes down, it's the next man in," said Trevor Scott, the former Raider who will see more time while Cunningham serves his suspension. "And you're expected to perform just as well as anybody else. That's why we work hard every week to stay mentally and physically prepared."

    Next up: the Miami Dolphins.