FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Rob Ninkovich feared his career might be over before the New England Patriots gave him a chance in 2009.
He hurt his knee as a rookie three years earlier, was waived four times and had no backup plan if his NFL hopes ended.
But since joining the Patriots, he’s been sacking quarterbacks and keeping runners from getting outside. He’s a key to a veteran defense that has helped the Patriots to a 3-0 start while the offense has endured growing pains.
“We’ve played a lot of games together,” the defensive end said Monday. “So (there’s) communication, everyone being in the right spot and doing their job. Are there things that we need to work on? Sure.
“So throughout the year we’re going to just continue to get better and work hard to be a great defense.”
Ten defensive starters are back from last season. The only newcomer is tackle Tommy Kelly, who spent his other nine seasons with the Oakland Raiders and has fit in well.
The Patriots are tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for fewest points allowed (34). Seven came on a fumble return, so the defense has given up just three touchdowns. But they’ve played three of the NFL’s weaker teams, the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The challenge is much tougher next Sunday night at Atlanta.
“Atlanta is a big challenge, but so was Tampa,” Coach Bill Belichick said.
Not nearly as big.
The Patriots haven’t faced a quarterback as talented as Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who was third in the NFL with a 68.1 completion percentage and sixth in passer rating after Sunday.
New England’s offense made progress in the 23-3 win over the Buccaneers after two shaky games. Two rookie wide receivers started, with Kenbrell Thompkins catching two touchdown passes from Tom Brady, and Aaron Dobson making seven receptions.
Ninkovich knows what it’s like to be struggling. He played just eight games in his first three seasons, with New Orleans and Miami. Each cut him twice before the Patriots signed him on Aug. 2, 2009.
He’s developed so well that he just signed a three-year extension worth more than $15 million with $8.5 million guaranteed through 2016, his agent, Craig Domann said.
“Coming in, I was living out of a Rubbermaid bin just with clothes and (I’d) throw it in the back of my car and drive from city to city,” Ninkovich said. “It’s nice to actually have a home for longer than a year.”
The lowest point came when the Saints cut him on July 30, 2009.
“Oh, it might be over for me,” he thought. “So then I came here, and it wasn’t.”
Ninkovich played mostly on special teams in 2009, but in 2010, he began a starting streak that is now 42 games, including the postseason.
“I think that my skills fit this scheme well,” he said. “I can play (defensive) end, and I can play linebacker.”
Against Tampa Bay, he had five tackles and shared a sack. The Patriots stopped the Buccaneers four times on fourth down inside the New England 40.
“That’s all about attitude,” said safety Devin McCourty. “Sometimes the offense is running a play they haven’t run all day. It’ll be something different and it’s just one-on-one matchups across the board and somebody on defense making a play.”
Ninkovich has made plenty of them. In the past three seasons, he has 18½ sacks and nine fumble recoveries. And he has plenty of time to get more.
“I thought it was over almost in 2009,” he said. “I had one chance to stick around to play in the NFL. That was five years ago now, which is surreal and kind of crazy.
“But I’m happy it happened.”