FOXBOROUGH — One year older and plenty wiser, Marcus Cannon is expected to make his second start on Sunday for the Patriots, three seasons into his NFL career.
This situation has similarities to the first time Cannon started for the Patriots, Nov. 22, 2012, a Thanksgiving road game against the Jets. Assuming Cannon starts Sunday’s home game with the Steelers, he’ll be filling in for an injured Sebastian Vollmer, just as he did last year.
The difference is that Vollmer is out for the rest of the season with a broken leg, so the starting right tackle job could be Cannon’s for the time being, if he performs well enough.
There are some who view success as a loosely defined formula involving preparation and opportunity. Cannon feels he’s always been prepared to play. Now, it would appear, he’ll have the opportunity.
Just don’t expect him to feel any different about this developing situation.
“I’m viewing it the same way as I did coming into the season. I’m doing the same things I’ve always been doing: If they need me, I’m here, and I’ll do my best to help the team,” Cannon said Friday, after the Patriots’ final on-field practice before facing the Steelers. “I’ll do everything I can to get better, and go out there and help the team as much as I can, any way I can.”
Perhaps that’s Cannon’s way of not adding any self-inflicted pressure to join a line that has played well at times, but poorly in others. Quarterback Tom Brady has been sacked 23 times through seven games (he was sacked 27 times all of last season), and no running back is on pace to reach 1,000 yards.
Yet Cannon will be lining up next to plenty of experience. The other four linemen — center Ryan Wendell, left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, and right guard Dan Connolly — are all returning starters. All have helped Cannon in his professional development.
“When I came in here there was really nothing but older guys, and those guys do everything they can to help me. I can look up to them and ask them questions from their experience, what they went through. Sometimes the guys have gone through the same things that I’m going through, and I can ask them for different pointers . . . ‘What did you do to make this better? How did you get through this?’ . . . just anything, from football to life,” Cannon said. “It’s always good to have somebody that’s already been through it and you can ask for help.”
As a cancer survivor, Cannon has been on the answer side of some of those discussions. He didn’t play for the Patriots until Week 11 of his rookie season in 2011 as he completed treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He remains in remission.
Cannon played offensive tackle at Texas Christian: 24 starts at right tackle, 13 at left tackle when he was a senior. He’s filled in for Vollmer or taken over at left tackle when Solder assumes a tackle-eligible role at tight end, and has occasionally spelled Connolly at guard.
That kind of flexibility — and the journey that’s brought him here — has impressed his coaches and linemates.
“Marcus earned a lot of respect from everybody his rookie year with what he dealt with on his cancer treatments and being elevated to the roster in the second half of the season and coming along. He’s worked some inside at guard and also at tackle,” Bill Belichick said. “I think he’s gotten better each year, he’s got good skills for his size. He’s an athletic guy who has good feet, can move people in the running game, and has the quickness to block them in protection.
“He had an opportunity to play last week and stepped in, did a good job for us there in the second half against Miami. I’m sure he’ll have a good attitude, good week of preparation this week against Pittsburgh, and be ready to meet that challenge, too. He’s been a solid guy for us and it looks like he’ll get an opportunity to play here in the near future.”
That will start now, but Cannon is taking a short-term approach. Ask him if he’s excited for the playing time possibilities available the rest of the season, and he’ll quietly answer that the team is excited to play Pittsburgh. Nothing more.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve improved on, but there’s also a lot of stuff I still have to improve on,” Cannon said. “It’s always good to know what you’ve improved on, but it’s even better to know what you need to fix. I think that’s pretty much where I’m going: Learning what I’m not that good at, and fixing it.”