Quick Links

Pats DE Ninkovich has nose for finding the ball

201301161257466515637-p2.jpeg

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.''

---

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

---

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Quick Links

Five factors to predict Dolphins at Ravens this Sunday

Five factors to predict Dolphins at Ravens this Sunday

What: Dolphins (7-4) at Ravens (6-5)

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

Ravens injuries:

OUT – TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), G Alex Lewis (ankle), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh).

DOUBTFUL – RB Buck Allen (non-football issue).

QUESTIONABLE – WR Kamar Aiken (thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle).

Dolphins injuries:

OUT – C Maurkice Pouncey (hip).

DOUBTFUL – CB Xavien Howard (knee).

QUESTIONABLE – OT Branden Albert (wrist), LB Kiko Alonso (hamstring), G Jermon Bushrod (calf), RB Kenyen Drake (knee); LB Jelani Jenkins (knee/hand); DT Earl Mitchell (back); WR DeVante Parker (back); G/T Laremy Tunsil (shoulder).

Five questions you should ask:

1. Are the Dolphins ready to win a big road game in December?

Despite their six-game winning streak, the Dolphins are just 2-3 away from home. Now you’re asking them to win at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Dolphins are 0-2 all-time? We’ll see. The Dolphins will gain credibility as an AFC playoff threat if they win this game.

2. Can the Ravens put together a complete offensive performance?

Quarterback Joe Flacco wasn’t satisfied with the Ravens’ 19-14 win over the Bengals in Week 12. Actually, he hasn’t been satisfied with the offense all season.

“When you have a team 16-3, you would like to choke them out and get it over with,” Flacco said.

He knows the Ravens have to play better offensively to go on a December run. And part of that improvement starts with Flacco.

3. Can the Ravens’ offensive line handle Cameron Wake (8½ sacks) and Ndamukong Suh (five sacks)?

The Dolphins’ defensive line has the ability to make Flacco’s day miserable. The Ravens’ offensive line will need one of its better performances.

4. Which team’s running game will be most effective?

This could be the key to victory, because both teams want to run and utilize play-action passing. Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (847 yards, 5.3 yards per carry) is a load, but the Ravens have the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. Ravens rookie running back Kenneth Dixon is coming off his best game (13 carries, 49 yards), and looks ready to share more carries with Terrance West (600 yards).

5. Can the Ravens get enough pressure on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill?

Tannehill has nine touchdown passes and just one interception during the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak. The Dolphins like to get Tannehill outside the pocket and take advantage of his ability to throw accurately on the move. Tannehill’s game has grown under new head coach Adam Gase. If the Ravens don’t throw Tannehill off his rhythm, he will make plays.

Prediction: Expect a typical close Ravens game, but I see them squeezing out a critical victory, on the strength of Justin Tucker’s leg.

Ravens 20, Dolphins 17 

MORE RAVENS: How Ravens could still win AFC North

Quick Links

CB Jimmy Smith expected to play, listed as questionable for Sunday

CB Jimmy Smith expected to play, listed as questionable for Sunday

OWINGS MILLS — Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins, but it appears Smith will play after missing the past two games with a back problem. Smith practiced all week, and head coach John Harbaugh sounded optimistic following Friday’s practice.

“He looks good,” Harbaugh said. “We weren’t sure early in the week if he was going to be able to go, and he just responded well and he looks good. It will mean a lot. It will help our defense. We’ll be really, pretty much, full strength out there.”

Three Ravens were declared out for Sunday’s game — tight end Crockett Gillmore (thigh), left guard Alex Lewis (ankle) and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh).

Meanwhile, backup running back Buck Allen was doubtful due to a non-football issue.

“Buck had a personal issue come up,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the most I want to say about it right now. It’s just something that’s a personal issue right now that he’s dealing with. He may not be able to play in the game. We’re just going to have to see about that, where he’s at with it.”

MORE RAVENS: How Baltimore could still win AFC North