FOXBOROUGH — Fifty-one defensive snaps played against the Titans, zero tackles. Fifty-eight snaps against the Ravens, one tackle. Clearly, Rob Ninkovich wasn’t seeing the production numbers or making the impact plays he was hoping for following the full-time move from linebacker to defensive end.
That’s changed the last two weeks. Ninkovich had five tackles in the win at Buffalo, including a sack and a forced fumble. In the 31-21 home win over Denver last Sunday, Ninkovich had six tackles, with another sack, and two forced fumbles.
The secret? Patience.
“I just knew my time would come to make some plays,” Ninkovich said. “As a defensive end, you’re not going to get the big number of tackles that some linebackers do because obviously you’re in a different spot and you’re not always having the ball [funneled] to you every time.
“I knew I was capable of making some big plays and being a guy you could count on. The first couple weeks I didn’t feel that I was playing my style, the way I would like to play. The last couple weeks, I felt like I’ve been doing some things.”
Ninkovich’s inspired, improved play has coincided with the Patriots winning the last two games. They’ll take their modest winning streak across the country this weekend, looking to make it three straight on Sunday against the Seahawks.
The position Ninkovich is playing now isn’t new to him; he spent time at defensive end at Purdue, and has been used there by the Patriots at times over the last few years. But until this season he was listed by the team as a linebacker, albeit one who would get plenty of game reps as an edge rusher. Now he’s spending all his time on the line, a key component to the 4-3 defense.
Differences? There are many.
“The toughest part is when you’re going against a tight end who is comparable to me, probably the same size, as opposed to [offensive tackle] Sebastian Vollmer, who is 6-8 and 320,” said Ninkovich, who goes 6 feet 2 inches, 260 pounds. “You just have to play with a different type of leverage, because obviously you’re going up against a guy you’re giving up a lot of weight to. It’s all about technique and working your hands. Being a little bit shorter kind of helps you get underneath those guys.
“Run-pass reads, that’s the big thing as a linebacker. Being able to adjust to coming up when it’s a run and dropping when it’s a pass, and then you have play-action. [As a defensive end], you’re going in one direction, you’re going forward. I’d say that’s the biggest difference.”
The Patriots pride themselves on position flexibility. The offensive line can be musical chairs because of injuries and rotation; the defensive secondary might see a player at safety on one play, and cornerback the next; Julian Edelman and, when healthy, Aaron Hernandez can line up in any number of locations.
Ninkovich provides that, as well.
“In a Bill Belichick defense, you never know what position you’re going to be in, so it’s good to know multiple positions,” said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. “Ninkovich is one of those guys who we’ve moved around a lot. He’s done a very good job of doing his role. On any given Sunday, Bill may say, ‘Hey, we want you to play here,’ so you’ve got to be ready.”
Ninkovich has combined with rookie Chandler Jones to form a dangerous edge-rushing duo. Jones has three sacks and two forced fumbles. At the beginning of the season, Jones would line up as the right defensive end, with Ninkovich on the left side. Lately they’ve switched it up a bit. All by design, Ninkovich said.
“It’s just a game-plan thing. Earlier in the year we were kind of just left and right, and that gives offenses a chance to say this is what they are, this is what they’re doing,” he said. “Moving around helps both of us out, generates some pressure changing it up, two different styles of rusher, me and Chandler.”
Jones is a rookie, though, wide-eyed and excitable, and able to make an impact on every play. Ninkovich is a seven-year veteran, experienced, versatile, steady. The kind of player Belichick loves to have.
“Rob’s athletic, he can run, he’s got good balance, good strength,” Belichick said. “He can work against bigger guys, but also is quick enough to give bigger guys trouble with his athletic ability. He’s an instinctive player, uses his hands well, has a good feel for the ball and situations, anticipates things well.”
He’s done that the last two weeks, strip-sacking Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo, then Peyton Manning, which set up a third-quarter touchdown. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Broncos inside the Patriots’ 15-yard-line and looking to cut into a 10-point deficit, Ninkovich made perhaps his biggest play, dislodging the ball from running back Willis McGahee. The Patriots recovered, and were able to run out the clock.
“I just saw the running back step inside, so I followed him, saw the ball in his right hand, tried to throw a hook at it,” said Ninkovich, who seems to be finding his comfort level at defensive end, making impact plays again.
“It’s like riding a bike,” he said, “and I’m happy to be back on it.”