I may be as surprised as anyone to be writing about Rob Ninkovich here, particularly after I wrote the Re-Focused article after his Week 8 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He struggled mightily in all phases of the game that day, but the horrible outing proved to be a turning point in his season and marked the last time Ninkovich graded in the red other than his Week 17, 24-snap game against the Buffalo Bills.
This versatile one-time journeyman has come a long way, evolving into a key cog in the Patriots’ D and their Secret Superstar for 2012.
The road to Secret Superstardom has not always been a smooth one for Ninkovich. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2006 draft by the New Orleans Saints, but a multitude of injuries kept him off the field throughout the early part of his career. By the time the Patriots picked him up during training camp in 2009, he had played in only eight NFL games over a three-year period, and he already had two stints with the Saints, sandwiched around a year with the Miami Dolphins. It’s safe to say that expectations were not particularly high he arrived in New England.
Despite his journeyman status, there were some Patriots fans that saw Ninkovich as a replacement for departed fan favorite linebacker Mike Vrabel who was often lauded for his ability to pressure the quarterback while moonlighting on offense as a goal line touchdown specialist. Sure, the track record wasn’t there, but Ninkovich wore the same number, had a similar build, and played the same position; the only thing missing was lining up at tight end and catching touchdowns (which he actually did in college numerous times). He wasn’t an instant sensation, but nearly every time he got a chance to play, Ninkovich has produced.
In 2009, Ninkovich graded at +3.4 while playing only 127 snaps and followed it up by posting a +5.9 on 573 snaps in 2010. He proved proficient as a run defender and rushed the passer at an adequate level. Still, he was no more than a role player, though he finished the season on a high note, providing the only viable pass rush for the Patriots in their Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Jets.
Doing What’s Asked
The 2011 season started with the Patriots experimenting with a new defensive front and with Ninkovich playing a new position. To this point in his career, he’d primarily lined up as a 3-4 OLB while occasionally putting his hand on the ground to rush the quarterback. He played defensive end in college, so much of his career had already been spent learning how to play a new position. Last year he added 4-3 SAM linebacker to his resume.
It’s a very unique skill set that allows for smooth transition from 3-4 OLB to 4-3 OLB to pass rushing defensive end, and for some players it can be a year-long process. There is no such timeframe in the Patriots’ defense and Ninkovich’s role evolved week-to-week and sometimes play-to-play.
There was one four-week stretch that exemplified Ninkovich’s ability to adapt, starting with Week 10 against the Jets. To that point in the season, Ninkovich had played sparingly in coverage, and with less than stellar results. On this night, Head Coach Bill Belichick needed him to drop back more often, and Ninkovich came through in a big way. He picked off a tipped pass in the third quarter, but it was his play in the fourth that put the finishing touches on a huge division win for the Patriots.
With 7:47 remaining, Ninkovich starts the play by lining up on TE Dustin Keller in the slot. At the snap, Ninkovich gives him a good bump, and with help from fellow linebacker Tracy White, Keller gets knocked to the ground. Reading the apparent double team, quarterback Mark Sanchez sets his sights on his checkdown receiver, running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Unfortunately for Sanchez, that was Ninkovich’s next assignment. After dropping Keller, he immediately slid in to cover Tomlinson, and Sanchez never saw him. The result was a 12-yard interception return for a touchdown.
The following week against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots continued to use Ninkovich primarily in coverage, but he made the most of his eight pass rushes, picking up a sack, a hit, and two pressures. Even in a game where he was asked to cover tight ends and running backs the majority of his snaps, Ninkovich still made an impact while rushing the quarterback. Over that two week period, he played in coverage on 49 snaps while rushing only 15 times.
When the game plan was drawn up for Week 12 against the Philadelphia Eagles, it was as if the Patriots had forgotten about Ninkovich’s new-found coverage ability. Instead, he was asked to rush more often and he provided five pressures and a sack while dropping into coverage only three times. The next week against the Indianapolis Colts, that trend continued as he rushed 30 times with only one snap in coverage. This two-week run could not have been more different than the previous as Ninkovich played in coverage on only four snaps while rushing the passer on 79. Very few players in the league can provide this level of versatility without a huge drop-off in play.
As the Patriots evolved, so did Ninkovich and he continued his stellar play all the way to the Super Bowl. He’s doing a job that often takes three roster spots to fill, and in a league that embraces specialists–whether pass rushers, nickel cornerbacks, or slot receivers–Ninkovich’s value has been as a jack-of-all-trades.
It appears that the No. 50 was left in good hands, and the only thing left to do for Ninkovich is to catch a touchdown pass at tight end. He’s done everything else asked of him to this point.