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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Once facing felony charges, Nebraska OL picked by Ravens in 4th round

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Once facing felony charges, Nebraska OL picked by Ravens in 4th round

Ravens’ fourth-round pick Alex Lewis did not take the smoothest path to the NFL.

Lewis began his college career at the University of Colorado, but in 2013, he was arrested in Boulder, Colo. for an altercation with an Air Force cadet. According to the police report, the cadet was knocked unconscious after having his head repeatedly slammed into a wall by Lewis.

Lewis faced two felony charges and has his Colorado scholarship withdrawn. He eventually served 28 days in jail for a conviction of third-degree assault.

By many accounts, Lewis has been a changed man since that incident. Obviously, the Ravens have done their research on Lewis and felt comfortable enough to take him. He became a team captain at Nebraska, where he started 26 games at left tackle.

Looking for more offensive line depth, the Ravens selected tackle Lewis with the 130th pick, their third pick in the fourth round. Lewis could be more suited to play right tackle in the NFL. where Rick Wagner is currently the Ravens’ starter.

Ravens target playmaking receiver with second pick of 4th round

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Ravens target playmaking receiver with second pick of 4th round

The Ravens targeted playmaking wide receiver Chris Moore with their second pick (107th overall) in the fourth round. While the Ravens expect wide receivers Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman to return from season-ending injuries in 2015, Moore could earn a role in the rotation and should add depth to a position where injuries have been a problem.

During his college career, Moore had 26 touchdown catches and excelled both as a deep threat receiver and as a possession receiver. His 21.1 yards per catch average last season ranked eighth in the nation, as Moore finished with 39 receptions for 823 yards and seven touchdowns for the season. 

The Ravens were also attracted by Moore’s size -- 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. Moore showed a willingness to catch balls in traffic at Cincinnati, and he also broke tackles that led to long runs after the catch.

The Ravens also signed deep threat receiver Mike Wallace during free agency, so on paper, quarterback Joe Flacco will begin training camp with a diverse variety of weapons. Big plays were sorely lacking in the Ravens’ passing game last season, but Moore could play a part in changing that.

Ravens finally take cornerback in 4th round of NFL Draft

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Ravens finally take cornerback in 4th round of NFL Draft

The Ravens finally drafted a cornerback, taking Tavon Young of Temple with their first pick in the fourth round (104th overall). Young is a Maryland native who went to Oxon Hill High School, and the Ravens hope Young’s homecoming will strengthen their secondary.

For five straight years, the Ravens have not drafted a cornerback during any of the first three rounds. Jimmy Smith, their first-round pick in 2011, is the last cornerback the Ravens have spent a high pick on, and it was revealed this week that Smith would undergo surgery to remove bone chips from his foot. 

Smith is expected to recover in four to six weeks, but even before his most recent foot issues, the Ravens entered this draft looking for corners. The starting spot opposite Smith is wide open, and even if Shareece Wright or Kyle Arrington wins that job, Young has a chance to contribute immediately in a nickel-back role.

Young had seven career interceptions at Temple, but he was not among the bigger corners in this draft pick at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds. Young might have his work cut out covering taller receivers, but he was durable and tackled well – two traits that likely attracted him to the Ravens.