For the second time in less than three weeks, Patriots coach Bill Belichick fielded questions about one of his players being suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Neither suspension, Belichick said, had to happen.
The NFL announced Monday that defensive end Jermaine Cunningham was to immediately begin a four-game suspension, so he will miss Sunday’s game at Miami, home dates with Houston and San Francisco, and the Dec. 23 game at Jacksonville. Running back Brandon Bolden has been out since Nov. 9 and is eligible to return next week. The league does not specify what substance triggers the discipline.
“Those situations are unfortunate,” Belichick said Tuesday in his weekly teleconference. “Neither one of them needed to happen, they weren’t that important, but they were violations, so they are what they are.”
Belichick was asked, as a result of Bolden’s suspension earlier this month, if he discussed the issue with the team. Cornerback Aqib Talib also has served a four-game suspension this season for violating the league’s PED policy, but it began when he was still playing for Tampa Bay.
“I address the team every day, we talk to them on a regular basis,” Belichick said. “Unfortunately sometimes on these things people make mistakes, but everybody is accountable for them.”
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, following Belichick on the same conference call, talked about losing a defensive regular for the next month. Cunningham played in 62 of the team’s 69 defensive snaps against the Jets Thanksgiving night, and has two fumble recoveries and 2½ sacks among his 24 tackles this season.
“Obviously it’s an unfortunate situation for Jermaine, but our main focus is really trying to move forward, put our pieces together defensively,” Patricia said. “Like we do every week, when the parts do change, whatever the situation may be, we just adapt to them and move ahead. That’s what we’re focused on right now.”
Cunningham won’t count against the 53-man roster during his suspension, so the Patriots will be able to make a roster move to replace him.
“We’ll have to take a look at our options here,” Belichick said. “Basically there are two options: We can bring somebody in from outside and sign them to the roster, or we can do something with a player on the practice squad. We’ll see.”
Scott O’Brien made a guest appearance on the weekly coaches’ teleconference, and the topic at hand had everything to do with special teams, which is O’Brien’s area of expertise. He has overseen a unit this season that has returned a kickoff for a touchdown, returned a punt for a touchdown, and last week against the Jets forced a fumble on a kickoff, which was scooped up and also brought back for a touchdown.
But it was also on a seemingly meaningless special teams play – a point-after attempt against the Colts Nov. 18 – that star tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his left forearm, an injury that will sideline him for at least a few more weeks.
Why, O’Brien was asked, was Gronkowski even in the game on special teams?
“Bill’s philosophy has always been to have players on the team fulfill roles. You need them, you look for that,” O’Brien said. “We have specific roles with every phase that we deal with, and we’re committed to playing the best players at the position on every phase that we do have.
“Whether it’s the hands team, where you have starting wide receivers, or the kickoff coverage team, we really want our role players and our backup players to be the core of our special teams, that’s what we try to build, but we’re always trying to put the best players out there, because you have to play 11 players, and we’re trying to put what we think are the 11 best players out there at one time.”
Devin McCourty is responsible for the kickoff-return score (a 104-yarder in the first game against the Jets), and Julian Edelman sparked the home win over the Colts by bringing a second-quarter punt return all the way back. Edelman also scored the special teams touchdown against the Jets, catching the fumble caused by McCourty.
“I think anytime you can contribute with big plays or put points on the board for your team it’s a credit to the players on the field, what our goals are every week that we try to accomplish, and to see them fulfill it is obviously gratifying to me,” O’Brien said. “It’s good to see them have success because they’ve worked so hard all year.”
Ebert on board?
The Patriots are expected to add receiver Jeremy Ebert to the practice squad. Ebert, from Northwestern, was the team’s seventh-round pick in this year’s draft but was released before the season. He could provide a healthy practice body, and possible insurance, if Edelman can’t play Sunday. Edelman left Thursday’s game against the Jets with a head injury . . . The Patriots are 57-15 against teams from the AFC East since 2001, but seven of the losses have been to Miami . . . Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf will call Sunday’s game on CBS.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.