Patriots Defense: Who Might See the Door (Part 3)

So far, we've looked at team leader and Utility Safety James Sanders in Part 1, as well as ultimate athlete and Free Safety Brandon Meriweather in Part 2. This next player should come as no surprise to those who've had the (dis)pleasure of sitting through a season of my commentary.

Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain earned a three year deal last off-season after notching a 9.5 sack season (despite five of those sacks coming against the lowly Buffalo Bills offensive line). There's a chance TBC may have seen the end of the line.

This past year, TBC played a more reserved role as Jermaine Cunningham's back-up, while having a salary cap impact in the same area as Vince Wilfork. I don't think I'm alone when I say that TBC's impact was no where near Wilfork's impact. After being beat out for the starting spot by rookie Cunningham, the 30-year-old TBC played well enough as a reserve to notch five (5) sacks on the season. Of course, that seems like reasonable production from a reserve, especially when considering that one of those sacks clinched the game by forcing a fumble against the Green Bay Packers.

Let's take a closer look after the jump at why Tully Banta-Cain needs to step up this off-season to win a roster spot.

Let's look at TBC's sacks over the year, and then we'll look at how he handles the other facets of his game:

Half Sacks

Against the Bengals - It's clear that this half-a-sack is not really of TBC's doing. He latches on after Myron Pryor and Vince Wilfork sandwich Carson Palmer and takes away Wilfork's half-a-sack.

Against the Steelers - Again, TBC doesn't really earn this half-a-sack, as he jumps on after Gerard Warren already has a bear hug on Ben Roethlisberger.

Looking at those two, I feel comfortable saying that of Tully Banta-Cain's five registered sacks, only a maximum of four can be attributed to TBC. Petty? Possibly. But I'm trying to break down TBC's game.

Full Sacks

Against the Jets (part 1) - TBC does a great job cutting inside to trip up Mark Sanchez, although Ron Brace was in position to make the take down. Still, TBC trips Sanchez, forcing him to hold the ball instead of throwing it away.

Against the Steelers - In the 2-4-5 defense, TBC does a nice job spinning to the inside after Jermaine Cunningham forces Ben Roethlisberger to step up in the pocket. Great wrap-up sack with Vince Wilfork ready for clean-up if TBC misses the sack.

Against the Jets (part 2) - TBC lines up at LDE in a sub package against Sanchez' Hail Mary, the Patriots dropped back 8 into coverage and Sanchez stood in the pocket to wait for a play to develop down the field. TBC spins inside and holds onto one of Sanchez's legs. Sanchez throws it away, but the QB safety rules calls Sanchez down. Solid attack, but Sanchez was statued in the pocket, waiting for a big throw at the end of the half.

Against the Packers - TBC lines up at LDE as the Patriots drop eight into coverage against the Packers' last play of the game. Eric Moore flushes Flynn forward and TBC spins away from his blocker to strip sack Flynn and end the game. Great sack by TBC.

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Looking at the rest of TBC's game, we see a player who is okay at most, but great at little. He's able to set the edge against the run, but he's not as solid as Cunningham or Moore. He's able to drop into coverage, but he's not as skillful as Rob Ninkovich or Dane Fletcher. He's able to rush the quarterback, but he's never really much of a threat. He's often used in a contain role, where he stands by in case an outlet receiver emerges, or the quarterback attempts to scramble. The times that he does rush the quarterback, his speed rush ends with him pushed around the pocket. He only possesses two moves (speed and spin), where his speed is ineffective. His spin yields some positive results in collapsing the pockets, but he's too often contained by just average tackles.

The biggest thing I notice is how TBC was relying much less on his speed around the corner and more on his spin move to the inside lane to reach the quarterback. His extremely effective speed in 2009 was limited in 2010, which makes me wonder if he's lost a step with his speed. While he was still contributing as a reserve, I wonder if his impact would have lessened if Jermaine Cunningham remained healthy the whole season, especially with the emergence of Eric Moore. In sub-packages, with the OLBs moving up to the DE spots, Moore and Cunningham played the blind side, so maybe the coaching staff believed TBC to be the least dangerous pass rusher of the three.

When looking at the roster spots for next year, I don't think that TBC might be a risk because of some clearly better player on the roster. He may just be a casualty of roster space and the cap. With a cheaper, possibly better, and one year younger alternative in Eric Moore already on the roster, TBC might be fighting for his Patriots' life.

With Jermaine Cunningham pretty much assured of a roster spot, TBC will be fighting Moore, Rob Ninkovich and Markell Carter for roster spots. While five spots for OLBs does not seem out of the question, the Patriots have a lot of talent in the secondary and on the defensive line that they may wish to hold on the roster.

When looking at OLBs, I see two clear OLB types:

Run stuffing/pass rushing: 1) Jermaine Cunningham, 2) Eric Moore, 3) Tully Banta-Cain

Coverage/pass rushing: 1) Rob Ninkovich, [2) Dane Fletcher], 3) Markell Carter

The coverage OLBs have added value as special teams players, so TBC may be left in the dark. The more I watch TBC, the more I see a player who might be on his last legs in a Patriots' uniform.

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