Everyone talks about the youth on the Patriots' defense, and rightfully so, with at times six rookies on the field at once. But the Patriots wouldn't have led the AFC in takeaways and achieved a 14-2 regular-season record without veteran leadership, like eighth-year OLB Tully Banta-Cain.
Banta-Cain, who is in his sixth season in Foxborough, saw his role change after a career-high 10 sacks in 2009. With rookies Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham coming into the fold this season, Banta-Cain has been a key part of the team's nickel defense as one of its top pass rushers.
"I just try to be the best competitor I can be in practice and in games — that's the example I try to set. We got a good mix of guys that do a lot of things when you put them in a competitive setting; everyone is going to play at their best," Banta-Cain told PFW about his unit. "I've gained a lot of experience, more than anything, from last year to this year. It's definitely made me a better team player."
Despite battling a groin injury this season, Banta-Cain still led the team with 13 quarterback hits and was second with his five sacks. But he points out that it's not the number of sacks that the Patriots necessarily pride themselves on. "Our focus isn't just getting sacks and making that the No. 1 priority," he said. "We have a goal to disrupt the backfield — that's an untold stat. Our focus is always to do our jobs."
Banta-Cain made his presence felt with a big play in Week 15, when his strip-sack of Packers QB Matt Flynn clinched the victory for the Patriots. That sack also meant $1,000 donated to charity as part of the After-School All-Stars' Touchdown vs. Shutdown initiative.
"I was a kid once who was at risk. I grew up with a single mother, and football was really the only recreational thing that I had. If it weren't for that, I would have been on the streets. I can relate to the program because I can see another kid needing an opportunity to do something when school gets out," he said of the significance of the charity.
The versatile linebacker more than dabbles in the music world, recording hip-hop/R&B songs under the name "Nova-Cain."
"It's a good way to express myself as an artist. It gives me a chance to really give people a peak into my life," he said.
Banta-Cain the football player will be counted upon to lead the Patriots' pass rush during the playoffs, especially on passing downs. Along with Pro Bowl ILB Jerod Mayo and the two rookies, the Pats' linebacking corps is one of their strongest units, and it will continue to be for a while. Banta-Cain, who is signed through 2012, said that, ideally, New England will be his final destination in the NFL.
"If it works out, I would love to finish my career as a Patriot."