Patriots coach Bill Belichick lauded the instinctive play of defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who forced a Mark Sanchez fumble in the pocket and made the recovery to put the icing on Sunday’s 29-26 overtime victory over the Jets at Gillette Stadium.
“It’s something we talk about and work on each week,’’ Belichick said during his weekly teleconference, which was moved up one day to Monday as the team began preparations for Sunday’s game against the St. Louis Rams in London.
“We talk to the players and their awareness about not only making a hit on the quarterback, but having an awareness for the ball,’’ Belichick said. “We’ve seen Rob do that several times already this year. We saw it in the Buffalo game. We saw it in the Denver game and we saw it in the Jets game.’’
Ninkovich combined with Jermaine Cunningham on a 15-yard sack in overtime.
“It’s not just sacking the quarterback, but as you go to tackle them, you have an awareness of where the ball is,’’ Belichick said. “As you go to make the tackle . . . you can hit the ball or put pressure on the ball. As a quarterback, when you grip the ball, you don’t really have it secured like a running back does when he covers the nose of the ball and has three points of contact between his rib cage, his elbow, and the nose of the ball.
“It’s much harder to dislodge when it’s there than when it’s in the quarterback’s hand in his throwing grip.’’
The forced fumble was Ninkovich’s team-leading fourth of the season, and fourth in as many weeks. Mike Vrabel had five forced fumbles in 2007, which had been the most for any Patriot in the last 20 years.
“Rob has done that on numerous occasions, including last year as well. He has a good feel for that,’’ Belichick said. “It’s just an instinctive play that we coach and we talk about, but every play is different. It’s really the player’s awareness. In this case, it was Rob’s awareness that made it a game-changing play.’’
Said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, “I think the good thing about the play at the end of the game is if you take a whole look at the defense, everybody on the field [was] really doing their job and making sure the coverage match[ed] with what we were doing up front and giving those guys up front an opportunity to get to the quarterback.’’
Patricia said the defense had not called a blitz on the play, but instead was in “one of the normal defenses we run in that situation.’’
“I just think it’s a complementary play for the defense in general, obviously with Rob and Jermaine applying some pressure,’’ Patricia said. “But everybody up front handling their business is really what allowed us to get there.’’
In position to help
After starting at left cornerback in the first six games of the season, Devin McCourty started at safety Sunday, largely because of injuries and depth issues at the position.
“All of our defensive players are ready to go at multiple positions to whatever fits best for whatever particular play or series of plays we ask them to go out there and handle,’’ Patricia said. “Devin does a great job as far as understanding our defense and knowing the communication that has to take place in our secondary and obviously is in a position to go out there and help and work with Tavon [Wilson] and understand the corner play. ‘’
Asked how McCourty worked with Wilson at the back end of the secondary, Patricia said, “He did a good job with Tavon on the back end and on the outside, but obviously there’s a lot of room for improvement to try to keep getting better.”
Fixing to improve
While there are lingering concerns about consistency, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was encouraged by the Patriots’ ability to mount a drive that resulted in a tying 43-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski that sent it into OT.
“The fact you can come out of a game that was obviously a tight game, a division game, against a team that knows us pretty well and we didn’t have any turnovers, offensively,’’ McDaniels said. “We did a decent job on third down. We converted our few opportunities down there in the red zone and we scored in the two-minute to give ourselves an opportunity to win in overtime. I thought those situation things we talk about each week were positives for our team.’’
Another positive, according to McDaniels, was, “We didn’t have a lot of negative plays. I think we had one negative run, one sack, and a few penalties in there.
“We had some missed opportunities that were, whether we’re close on them or not, it doesn’t really matter until you make them. We had some errors that we can correct and fix and that we need to, so we can continue to keep drives alive and be more productive during the entire course of the game.’’
He knows foeThe matchup against the Rams will be the second this season in which McDaniels will face a team he previously coached. McDaniels presided over a 31-21 victory against Denver in Week 5 and now will help prepare the Patriots to face St. Louis, where he was offensive coordinator last season under Steve Spagnuolo.
“It was a valuable experience for me to learn and see how other people do things and see how dramatically different it could be,’’ McDaniels said. “How many different ways there are to try to be successful doing this thing, which is obviously a very hard thing to do in this league, because it’s so competitive. But, a lot of good players there. This defense is going to present a lot of different challenges than we’ve faced in certain weeks here, a little bit of a different style.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.