Cunningham's calf & OLB spot

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, who has been slowed by a calf injury in recent weeks, was one of two players not spotted at the start of practice today (defensive lineman Myron Pryor the other).

This opens a window to closer examine Cunningham's role on the defense, and how the Patriots might fill it if Cunningham doesn't suit up Sunday against the Jets.

Cunningham's primary contributions have come as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment and as a pass-rushing defensive end in sub packages. He's played 50.9 percent of the defensive snaps this season, and has been credited with 41 tackles, two forced fumbles and one sack.

Since playing a season-high 61 snaps against the Jets on Dec. 6, Cunningham's playing time has dipped:

Bears: 24

Packers: 35

Bills: 0 (inactive)

Dolphins: 3

Rob Ninkovich is locked in as one starting outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. In Cunningham's absence, the top candidates the Patriots could turn to are Tully Banta-Cain and Eric Moore. The Patriots also used rookie Dane Fletcher at that spot on Dec. 6, but that appeared to be a wrinkle to be used sparingly.

This highlights what looks like one of the top matchup concerns for the Patriots -- stopping the run with a front-seven that could have multiple changes from the Dec. 6 meeting between the teams.