Patriots DE Ninkovich producing in new position
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Rob Ninkovich charged into the Denver backfield and knocked the ball out of Peyton Manning's hand. One play later, the New England Patriots had a third-quarter touchdown.
Then, with less than four minutes left in the game and the Broncos rallying, the linebacker-turned-defensive-end forced Willis McGahee to fumble and the Patriots recovered again.
"That,'' McGahee said, "changed the game.''
New England kept the ball the rest of the way and beat Denver 31-21 last Sunday. For Ninkovich, it was another step forward in his transition to a new position for coach Bill Belichick, who places a premium on having players who can contribute in several spots.
"Just having the versatility helps everything,'' Ninkovich said, "helps the defense, helps the team, helps me.''
He'll have a much different challenge on Sunday in Seattle. Instead of facing the 36-year-old, 6-foot-5 Manning, he'll try to sack the Seahawks' more mobile quarterback, 23-year-old, 5-foot-11 rookie Russell Wilson.
The keys to stopping him are collapsing the pocket so Wilson can't escape the rush, Ninkovich said.
"Sometimes watching the tape you can see that the rush will get to him and he's able to kind of just get around some guys,'' he said. "It definitely is different (playing against) him as opposed to a guy who's 6-4 that can stand tall in the pocket. He's obviously got to move a little bit to get to some of those windows'' where he can have a clear line of vision between big linemen.
Ninkovich's responsibilities are simpler this season at his new position. He rarely has to worry about covering receivers. His job is to beat his blocker and tackle the ball carrier.
But that blocker almost always is bigger than the 260-pound, 6-foot-2 Ninkovich, who usually was blocked by a tight end last season.
"You just have to play with a different type of leverage and mentality, obviously, (when you're) going against a guy that you're giving up a lot of weight to,'' he said, "but it's all about technique and working your hands and not letting them get underneath you. So being a little bit shorter ... helps you get underneath those guys. They don't like that too much.''
Last season, his seventh in the NFL and third with the Patriots, Ninkovich started all 16 games at outside linebacker. He made a career-high 62 tackles, had 6 1/2 sacks, returned one of his two interceptions for touchdowns, forced one fumble and recovered two.
The drafting of outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the first round this year allowed the Patriots to move Ninkovich to end. In the first three games, he had just six tackles and a half sack. But in the other two, he made 11 tackles with two sacks and three forced fumbles.
"I don't think I was frustrated,'' Ninkovich said. "I just knew my time would come to make some plays. As a defensive end, you're not going to get the big numbers of tackles that some linebackers do, obviously, because you're in a different spot and you're not always having the ball (get) to you every time.''
But he has made some big plays.
The Patriots were leading the Broncos 24-7 when Ninkovich beat right guard Orlando Franklin to the outside, came up behind Manning and smacked the ball loose with his right hand. Vince Wilfork recovered at the Broncos 14-yard line.
"The first couple of drives I was trying to just bull rush, trying to collapse the pocket a little bit,'' Ninkovich said. "Then on that one rush I just changed it up and swiped (at the ball).''
He forced a more critical fumble when Denver had a second-and-10 at the New England 14 yard-line with 3:48 left and the score 31-21. McGahee got the ball on a draw play and Ninkovich jarred the ball out again.
"He's been playing well all year,'' middle linebacker Jerod Mayo said, "even though those big plays just started showing up.''
Ninkovich played end in college at Purdue, but his role in the Patriots system is much different.
He's playing better now that he's focusing on defeating his blocker and going after the player with the ball.
"Defensive end is a position where everything happens pretty fast,'' Ninkovich said. "I've been able to change a couple of style techniques in my game.''
And if he's ever needed at another position, he should be prepared.
"In a Bill Belichick defense, you never know what position you may be in,'' Wilfork said, "so it's good to know multiple positions, and Ninkovich is one of the guys that moves around a lot, from linebacker to sometimes inside, sometimes end, but he does a very good job of knowing his role. Any given Sunday, Bill may say, `we want to move you here.'
"You've got to be ready for it and he's answered the challenge every week.''
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