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Pats DE Ninkovich has nose for finding the ball

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Pats DE Ninkovich has nose for finding the ball

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Rob Ninkovich has a knack for forcing fumbles. He's also pretty good at recovering them.

He even does both on the same play.

``That's hustle,'' Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said. ``Rob's a guy whose engine's always going.''

It was really revving last Sunday when the defensive end dropped into the middle of the field late in the third quarter and intercepted a pass by Houston's Matt Schaub in New England's 41-28 divisional playoff win over the Texans.

And when the Texans tried an onside kick with 5:11 left in the fourth, Ninkovich pounced on it.

``I wanted to get the ball,'' he said, ``that's for sure.''

He always does - and is prepared to grab some more fumbles Sunday when the Patriots (13-4) face the Baltimore Ravens (12-6) in the AFC championship game.

``As a defensive player, you're always thinking the ball is a key,'' Ninkovich said. ``You're looking at the ball on the snap. You're trying to find the ball in pursuit. And when people are around the ball making plays, you're always aware of where it's at.

``If it's fumbled or if it's on the ground, you've got to get on it. Let everyone else decide what's going on, as long as you get the ball it'll all work itself out.''

His nine recoveries of opponents' fumbles over the past three seasons are the most by any defensive player during those years, according to Elias Sports Bureau. This season, he was tied for second in the league with four recoveries and forced five fumbles.

Ninkovich even got one of each on the same play, the one that ended the Patriots 29-26 overtime win over the New York Jets in the seventh game of the season.

Stephen Gostkowski had kicked the go-ahead field goal for New England, but New York still had a chance to tie or win. The Jets had the ball at their 40-yard line when Ninkovich beat right tackle Austin Howard and hit Mark Sanchez high while Jermaine Cunningham got him low for a sack. The ball came loose and Ninkovich pounced on it.

Game over.

``He's always been like that,'' said Tony Samuel, a former assistant at Purdue who coached Ninkovich as a senior with the Boilermakers. He is now coach at Southeast Missouri State. ``He's got that uncanny vision. He's got that way of just being Johnny-On-The-Spot, doesn't he?''

He sure does.

Ninkovich was in the right spot when the Patriots signed him as a free agent. Until then he had played in just eight games in three seasons with the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins. Injuries slowed him after the Saints drafted him in the fifth round in 2006, but he's been healthy with the Patriots.

And coach Bill Belichick found a way to use his talents.

``He has good body control, good balance, good hand-eye coordination, all those things, in addition to being a strong guy that's fast and has good quickness,'' Belichick said. ``If he has to drop into coverage as a defensive end, he can fall back on some of the things he's learned as a linebacker.''

Ninkovich played in 15 games with the Patriots in 2009, making 10 tackles on defense and 11 on special teams. He started 10 games as an outside linebacker in 2010, then started all 16 in 2011. This season he shifted to defensive end, starting every game. He led the team with eight sacks and was sixth with 61 tackles.

``He's solid,'' Ravens center Matt Birk said. ``He plays hard, like they all do on that defense. But he plays the run, rushes the passer and also drops into coverage. He's one of those hybrid, very versatile guys. He kind of does whatever they ask him to do. That makes him very valuable. Just a heck of a player.''

Samuel realized that during the year he coached defensive ends at Purdue in 2005. Ninkovich had eight sacks, intercepted two passes, forced two fumbles and recovered one.

``It doesn't always have to be a fumble, but he usually has some difference-making kind of play,'' Samuel said. ``He's just able to do it all. He's a great pass rusher. He's got real good moves.''

He called Ninkovich ``a tweener,'' bigger than typical outside linebackers and smaller than dominating defensive ends. At 6-feet-2, 250 pounds, he's aware of that.

``Any time you're not 6-6 (and overpowering) you have to do your very best to have great technique and outwork people,'' he said. ``So I pride myself on having good hands, good vision, knowing where the ball is, and that comes with just years of experience.''

Ninkovich isn't physically imposing. He's not a showman on the field. And he's soft-spoken.

``I think people kind of overlook his ability,'' McCourty said. ``He makes a lot of plays and those turnovers are always key.''

One reason he makes them? He's always alert, safety Steve Gregory said.

``He has good football instincts,'' Gregory said. ``He has a knack for the football. Those are some things that sometimes you can't teach. He takes pride in doing that and he does it well.''

Ninkovich has been compared to another Patriots outside linebacker who wore No. 50.

Mike Vrabel had no starts in four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then started 12 games in 2001, the first of his eight seasons with New England. He is now an assistant coach at Ohio State, his alma mater.

``I've never met him,'' Ninkovich said. ``Obviously, being here the last four years you definitely hear stories about how great he was, how smart he was. ... I'm still trying to fill the shoes that he left. They're pretty big.''

Ninkovich did catch two passes, both for touchdowns, as a tight end at Purdue. Vrabel had eight receptions, all for touchdowns, playing tight end with the Patriots. But Ninkovich doesn't expect to be sharing time at that position with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, once he recovers from the broken left arm that landed him on injured reserve Thursday.

``I think we have a few good tight ends here,'' Ninkovich said. ``So I'll stick to what I'm doing.''

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AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this report.

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WR Perriman hopes to impress not only with speed, but with hands

WR Perriman hopes to impress not only with speed, but with hands

OWINGS MILLS - People often call Breshad Perriman fast. They don’t always call Perriman sure-handed.

However, criticism of Perriman’s hands may be a thing of the past, according to Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. One of the few knocks on Perriman entering the 2015 draft was that he sometimes dropped catchable balls due to a lack of concentration. However, the Ravens’ second-year wide receiver has worked hard on catching the ball consistently, even when he wasn’t able to run during his recovery from two knee injuries.

Now Perriman finally seems close to making his Ravens debut. When that happens, Trestman said he expected to see a receiver not only with impressive speed, but reliable hands.

“I think his hands and concentration have even got better since he first got here,” Trestman said. “He is much more sure-handed – not that he wasn’t – but he has become even more sure-handed. I think that goes with confidence. He just needs to get out and play and run routes and do it consistently and get some reps. He just needs reps. He has go-to speed, and he has size to go with it. It is a unique package.”

A package the Ravens are eager to unwrap.

RELATED: WHO WILL GRAB HOLD OF RAVENS KICK RETURN JOB

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Ravens kick return job still up in the air

Ravens kick return job still up in the air

With two preseason games left, the Ravens appear to have little clarity in their efforts to find a kick return specialist, and although Michael Campanaro had all three punt return chances against the Colts last weekend, the Ravens aren't ready yet to declare the job his.

Last year's leading returners — Kaelin Clay and Jeremy Ross — are no longer with the team.

RELATED: MAKING SENSE OF FLACCO VS. THE LIONS

Coach John Harbaugh, the former special teams coach that he is, blasted the Ravens special teams play against the Colts, both in kick returns and in kick coverage.

"We kicked the ball to them, and they kicked the ball to us, and we got our butts kicked," Harbaugh said after the game. "That's unacceptable."

Harbaugh seemed particularly agitated about the Ravens kickoff coverage; the Colts averaged 28.0 yards per kick return, nearly 10 yards better than the Ravens (18.8).

Earlier this week, Harbaugh declared, "We have not found our punt returner or our kick returner yet."

As for kick returns, three running backs — Kenneth Dixon, Terrance West and Stephen Houston — returned kicks at Indianapolis last week with unimpressive results. West had the longest return at 23 yards, and two returns left the Ravens inside their 20-yard line.

The Ravens are giving both West and Dixon a long look as kick returner — Houston is a longshot to make the team — with the idea that a fourth running back could also contribute in the return game. Rookie Tavon Young has also been given reps as a kick returner, though he missed the Colts game with a hamstring injury.

Campanaro headlines a group of punt return candidates that includes former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Campanaro had all three punt return chances against the Colts, with one fair catch and one 21-yard return. Reynolds, who has had an inconsistent camp as a returner, served on the punt coverage team and had a tackle against the Colts but was not back as the return man at all.

Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said Campanaro "showed some real positive things" against the Colts, but Rosburg was not ready to hand him the job yet.

"Michael's out there trying to win the job," Rosburg said after practice on Wednesday. "It's really not his job, it's the returner. The job belongs to the team, and he's trying to get that job."

Expect the auditions for both jobs to continue Saturday night against the Lions.

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Why Ravens' decision to play Joe Flacco against Lions makes sense

Why Ravens' decision to play Joe Flacco against Lions makes sense

OWINGS MILLS – Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will see his first game action since last November on Saturday night, when he starts the Week 3 preseason game against the Lions.

“You need to get back out there, you need to get your mind used to getting ready for a game,” Flacco said Tuesday on Mad Dog Sports Radio with Adam Schein.

Here are three reasons why playing Flacco makes sense:

1. Flacco can benefit from playing before the regular-season opener:

Flacco has shown no indication that he is thinking about his surgically-repaired knee during practices. However, Flacco also knows that no teammates will hit him during practice. Game action will give Flacco a different feel, the test of facing tacklers who will hit him if given the opportunity. Look for the Ravens to call plays that require Flacco to get rid of the ball quickly. The Ravens don’t want Flacco to get hit. But they want him to knock off any potential game rust before the regular season starts.

2.  Flacco can build more chemistry with some of his receivers.

Wide receivers Mike Wallace and Chris Moore, as well as tight end Ben Watson, have never caught a pass from Flacco during a game. This will be a chance for them to get a better feel for each other heading into Week 1.

3. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley and rookie left guard Alex Lewis have been practicing and playing with confidence.

It’s early, but Stanley has looked more like a five-year vet than a rookie. Lewis is a physical blocker who doesn’t look intimidated by anyone, or anything. With guard John Urschel missing another day of practice on Wednesday, Lewis is expected to start next to Stanley on Saturday night. The Ravens feel their two rookies on the left side of the line can protect Flacco’s blindside well enough to the Lions away from him.

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