FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich is used to surprising people.
With the season he’s having, Ninkovich is becoming less of a surprise and more a staple of the Patriots’ defense.
Ninkovich had two interceptions last week in the Patriots’ win over the Jets, including one he returned 12 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Ninkovich has started every game this season at outside linebacker and has 33 tackles, 1 1-2 sacks and a fumble recovery.
Not bad for a converted defensive end who played in just eight NFL games before signing with the Patriots as a free agent in 2009.
“It’s good motivation for me,” Ninkovich said. “It makes me continue to push.”
A fifth-round pick by New Orleans in 2006, Ninkovich bounced between the active roster and practice squads of the Saints and Dolphins for three seasons before New England gave him a shot.
He had been trying to make the Saints as a long snapper, but the Patriots moved him to linebacker. At 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, he fit the position and gradually learned enough to become a starter.
“It’s kind of been like that since I was in high school. It’s really no new thing for me. It’s just kind of go out there and play the best I can and at the end of the game look back and see what I’ve done,” Ninkovich said. “It’s a good feeling, but you’ve got to keep trying. Keep impressing people. Keep people looking at you and saying ‘Wow that guy’s making good plays out there.’ ”
Although the Patriots (6-3) still rank last in the NFL in total defense, they played well against the division-rival Jets. New England held the Jets to 378 yards and forced three turnovers, including Ninkovich’s two interceptions. The first was on a pass that was tipped twice before Ninkovich grabbed it.
The second came from Ninkovich reading quarterback Mark Sanchez, who helped by making an errant pass deep in his own territory. Ninkovich simply stepped up, plucked the ball out of the air and headed for the end zone.
“It’s a great feeling, especially against the Jets,” Ninkovich said. “The icing on the cake was scoring.”
Getting noticed has been work for Ninkovich for a long time now. He played two years at a junior college before Purdue recruited him — as a tight end.
Ninkovich said he took the offer with the understanding he could try and play defense, too, and it was quickly apparent which side of the ball made him more comfortable. He still played tight end occasionally, but stood out on defense and was a second-team all-Big Ten pick as a senior.
“There’s a lot of guys on this team that came here and maybe some other teams didn’t think they were good enough to play for them, but they’ve come here and they’ve done well,” Ninkovich said. “I think that the organization itself just gives guys chances to do go out there and do things that the other teams wouldn’t let them.”
Ninkovich played in 15 games his first season with the Patriots and his role increased last season with more time at linebacker. He showed a knack for turnovers with three fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
Ninkovich said he’s always had the ability to catch, but linebacker Jarod Mayo teased that Ninkovich picks his spots to shine.
“Rob’s a hard worker. He spends a lot of time in the film room and he shows up on the field,” Mayo said. “He drops them in practice but catches them in the game. But hey, they come in twos with Rob.”