FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots lost their second defensive end in nine days on Monday when Jermaine Cunningham was suspended for four games without pay for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Now it's Trevor Scott's turn to get ready for more action.
"I don't really know what's going to happen as far as depth chart," the former Oakland Raider, who has been used sparingly, said, "but I'll definitely be preparing to have a more active role this week."
First-round pick Chandler Jones was having a solid rookie season with six sacks before hurting his right ankle in the first quarter of a 59-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 18. He missed the rest of that game and all of last Thursday's 49-19 rout of the New York Jets when Cunningham had a season-high six tackles in his first start of the year.
Now Cunningham's gone and Jones may not be ready to face the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
Scott has played only 110 snaps, 59 in the first nine games and 51 in the past two. He figures to play a lot more in Miami than his average this season of 10 per game.
But a defence that has just 23 sacks in 11 games seems to be taking in stride the loss of Cunningham, who has played well with three sacks after struggling last year, his second following the 2010 draft when the Patriots took him in the second round.
"Every year there's always going to be some issue that you have to deal with. That's just the way football goes," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who leads the Patriots with seven sacks. "So that's another thing that we'll just deal with."
With a win at Miami, the Patriots (8-3) would clinch the AFC East title for the fourth straight season and ninth in the last 10. If they win, none of the other division teams could get more than nine victories and they would lock up the best record among the four teams in division games.
"That's huge," special teams captain Matthew Slater said. "We're really thankful as a team to be where we are right now, to have a chance to be in position to play for something else. But we realize that eight wins doesn't get us anything. That'll get us a ticket home at the end of the season."
That's not very likely to happen -- with or without Cunningham and Jones -- not with the Patriots having the NFL's best offence, a five-game winning streak and two games against Miami and one against Jacksonville, both with losing records, remaining.
"The next guy's got to just step up and be ready to play," safety Steve Gregory said. "The game of football is a physical game. Guys go down. Guys get hurt. Everyone on your roster has to be ready to step up and play at any given moment, so all of our guys treat it that way."
The Patriots signed Scott as a free agent following four seasons with Oakland, where he was drafted in the sixth round. He had a total of 12 sacks in 32 games over his first two seasons, but just 1 1-2 in 26 games during the last two. Of his 58 games with the Raiders, he started 16.
He's not worrying about his limited playing time so far this year.
"It's not going to help if I get down about myself," Scott said. "I don't really have any control over that. But I just have control over what happens when I do get in the game."
The league's announcement of Cunningham's suspension did not specify the substance. The Patriots had no official reaction.
Cunningham can return to the active roster on Dec. 24, one day after the Patriots play at Jacksonville, and be eligible for the regular-season finale against the Dolphins in Foxborough.
Patriots rookie running back Brandon Bolden's four-game suspension for violating the same NFL policy ends after Sunday' game in Miami. Cornerback Aqib Talib has played two games since being traded by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had to sit out his first game with the Patriots to complete his four-game suspension for violating the policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Now with Cunningham out, if Scott can pressure the quarterback it would help the entire defence.
A good pass rush "always helps" the secondary, safety Devin McCourty said. "I think we work together pretty good at times and I think it's been improving each week."
How will that be affected by Cunningham's absence for four of the remaining five games?
"We'll see," McCourty said. "I don't know."