Pats DE Ninkovich has nose for finding the ball

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.

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