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

Rookie LG Lewis in concussion protocol after injury during Jaguars game

Rookie LG Lewis in concussion protocol after injury during Jaguars game

OWINGS MILLS – Three takeaways from Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s press conference Monday:

1. Starting left guard Alex Lewis is in the NFL’s concussion protocol.

Lewis did not finish Sunday’s 19-17 win over the Jaguars, with Ryan Jensen taking over in the fourth quarter. Lewis’ condition will be evaluated during the week.

“I thought he (Jensen) played well,” Harbaugh said. “He always gives you a spark man. He’s physical.  That’s one of the things that we feel really good about. We’ve got some depth in our interior offensive line.”

2. Harbaugh is not worried about critics who aren’t sold on the Ravens’ 3-0 start.

Only five teams in the NFL are 3-0, and the Ravens are one of them. Yet the combined won-loss record of the Ravens’ three opponents so far is 1-8.

Are the Ravens a good team, or simply a product of playing poor competition?

“That’s a fair question, but I think it’s a better question for prognosticators, writers and media,” Harbaugh said. “And it’s cool. It’s good to have that question. It doesn’t matter to us. We don’t have to evaluate ourselves. We just have to get ready to play games.”

3. Harbaugh was fine with the trash-talking after the game between Ravens’ wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. and Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

“I was actually in the middle of that at one point,” Harbaugh said. “I got caught in the middle of that. It was kind of fun. I thought Steve Smith had a heck of a game. If that’s how he responds to whatever challenge is put before him out there, I’m for having that happen every week. I thought he responded quite well. I think he had eight catches.”   

RELATED: Evaluating Ravens' offense vs. Jags

Quick Links

Ravens vs. Jaguars Week 3 report card: Defense/special teams

Ravens vs. Jaguars Week 3 report card: Defense/special teams

We've already handed out report cards to the offense after the Ravens' 19-17 win at Jacksonville on Sunday. Now it's time to grade the defense and special teams, which are the driving forces behind the third 3-0 start in franchise history:

DEFENSIVE LINE: A

The Ravens stuffed the Jaguars ground game. Chris Ivory's return was supposed to boost the Jags, but the Ravens held him to 14 yards on 12 carries. Overall, the Jaguars rushed 21 times for 48 yards. The Ravens also once again got interior pass rush pressure. Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy both had sacks, and Jernigan tipped two passes, one of which was intercepted by Tavon Young. Jernigan continues to play the best ball of his career. Brandon Williams finished with four tackles, and undrafted rookie Michael Pierce continues to contribute.

LINEBACKER: A-

The Ravens linebackers made an impact against the run and also against the pass, both with pressure and in coverage. Terrell Suggs, who had been quiet for 2 1/2 games, recorded a pair of fourth-quarter sacks. C.J. Mosley had an acrobatic one-handed interception, and Zach Orr picked off the Jaguars last pass after it was tipped by Lardarius Webb. Coverage by the linebackers was a major issue last season but has been much improved. Orr had  a team-high eight tackles. Second-round rookie Kamalei Correa saw his first defensive snaps of the season and showed well but dropped what might have been a pick-six interception.

SECONDARY: B

Eric Weddle was fully involved, with four tackles, two pass breakups and a few blitzes. Tavon Young recorded his first interception and Lardarius Webb tipped a pass that was picked off by Zach Orr.  Shareece Wright had some issues for the second straight week. He was beaten twice by Allen Robinson for touchdowns, and expect teams to continue to go after him with Jimmy Smith on the other side.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C

The special teams unit produced two of the biggest plays of the game -- Justin Tucker's 54-yard field goal that proved to be the game-winner, and Brent Urban's blocked field goal that set up the Ravens game-winning drive. But before that, the usually solid special teams had been a mess. Devin Hester, brought in mainly for his dependable ball security, fumbled away a punt return. Back-to-back penalties on Morgan Cox essentially cost the Ravens more than 25 yards on one punt sequence. The Ravens gave up a 42-yard punt return that set up the Jaguars' first touchdown. This group made the big plays at the end but is usually much better overall.

MORE RAVENS: OFFENSIVE REPORT CARD