January 17, 2013

Pats DE Ninkovich has nose for finding the ball

Rob Ninkovich's game-changing interception last week was just more of what he's been doing all season.

The Associated Press

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New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich (50) smiles as he responds to a reporter's question during a media availability at the NFL football team's facility, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots are scheduled to host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game Sunday. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

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New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich (50) runs with the ball after intercepting a pass intended for Houston Texans fullback James Casey during the second half of an AFC divisional playoff NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

"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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