EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — With so many projected starters on the sidelines for Wednesday night’s preseason finale between the Patriots and Giants, players who did get onto the field had to know they were taking part in a last-gasp audition to show that they deserve a roster spot when the NFL gets down to the 53-man limit on Friday.
There was one defensive player who clearly got the memo: Jermaine Cunningham.
Starting his third season, Cunningham was credited with three tackles, including two sacks, as the teams played to a largely forgettable 6-3 Giants win at MetLife Stadium.
About the only memorable things were the gaffes of the replacement officials and the name of the head referee, Don King, which inspired a lot of “only in America” quips.
“Now we are ready to turn the page and start playing them for real,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “I thought we competed well and the Giants competed well. We played competitively and did some good things, but I’m sure there are other things we still need to keep working on.”
Cunningham has not lived up to the expectations that come with being a second-round pick. Tabbed as a pass rusher coming out of the University of Florida, where he had 19½ career sacks, he played in 15 games, with 11 starts, as a rookie but recorded just one sack.
Last season, Cunningham played in only nine games. A groin injury in camp meant he missed the first game of the season, and then he was a healthy scratch for the Steelers and Giants games in Weeks 8 and 9.
He was placed on injured reserve Dec. 10 with a hamstring injury.
In all, he played just 48 snaps and was credited with one assisted tackle.
It appeared Cunningham may have turned a corner when he was one of the team’s offseason award winners, given for attendance in the conditioning program as well as progress in the weight room and on the field, during training camp.
“The big thing is he’s been out on the field every day,” Belichick said this month. “That’s the most important thing, is to be able to work and improve and get better. His durability has been good. He’s worked on a lot of little things — different reads, techniques in the running game, passing game, gained some experience.
“I think the whole lead-up to it has been good. He really hasn’t had that the last two years.”
Perhaps Cunningham benefited from his first offseason program. Last spring, which should have been his first, was wiped out by the lockout.
While he got off to a strong start in camp, Cunningham hadn’t appeared to sustain it. Add in the fact he doesn’t play with the top special teams units and he is one player firmly on the roster bubble.
But against the Giants, he had one of his better performances and made a case that he should get the chance to stick.
When asked specifically about Cunningham after Wednesday night’s game, Belichick did not provide details, saying the coaches will “go back and look at the film. It’s hard to watch everyone out there. I thought we made some improvement since the Philadelphia game,” noting that many of the players who faced the Eagles in the second preseason game also were the ones who faced the Giants.
In the first quarter, Cunningham dropped Eli Manning on third and 5, a 14-yard loss that forced the Giants to punt.
In the second quarter, Cunningham combined with Niko Koutouvides to stop running back Andre Brown for a 1-yard gain, and ended the half with a sack of backup quarterback David Carr.
Cunningham had at least two other quarterback pressures in the second half, but was not in the locker room after the game.
Other than Cunningham, the MVP of the night for New England was punter Zoltan Mesko.
With the Patriots’ offense stagnant, Mesko came out to punt a whopping nine times, easily the most kicks he’s made in a game.
He dropped six of his nine punts inside the Giants’ 20-yard line, and averaged 46.8 yards per punt.
He matched the effort of Giants Pro Bowler Steve Weatherford, who also punted nine times.
As for what really matters in a game like this, the Patriots seemed to escape relatively unscathed on the injury front. Koutouvides went to the locker room with what appeared to be a wrist injury, though he did return to the sideline.
Rookie Jeff Demps, who was unimpressive in his kickoff and punt return attempts, injured his lower leg in the second half.
Demps went for testing after the game, but told reporters he would be fine.