FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When he was an outside linebacker, Rob Ninkovich could spend more time covering receivers. He even intercepted two passes in two different games.
He’d prefer to get sacks, and he has a better chance now that the New England Patriots have shifted him to his college position of defensive end.
Still, he remembers clearly one of those two-interception games, on Oct. 4, 2010, in Miami when the Patriots beat the Dolphins 41-14.
“Two picks are a game changer, obviously,” he said before reminding a questioner of what else he accomplished in that game. “I think I had two picks and a sack. So, the more you can do right … “
Exactly how coach Bill Belichick feels.
No matter what position appears next to his players’ names on the depth chart, he wants them to do their jobs as well as possible.
“Rob’s always played at the end of the line of scrimmage so that’s still where he plays,” Belichick said. “Some things he’s doing this year he’s done in the past, maybe in different frequencies or percentages, but he’s still fundamentally an end-of-the-line player.”
Playing defensive end, though, reduces Ninkovich’s pass coverage responsibilities. He can focus more on trying to tackle the quarterback, one of the Patriots’ weaknesses last season. His next chance to do that comes Monday night at home in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Not too much (thinking) in that position,” he said. “You’ve got to do some things, obviously, but the more things you can do, the more versatile you are for the team, is just going to help the whole team out.”
Ninkovich didn’t help his teams out much in his first three pro seasons.
New Orleans drafted him in 2006 out of Purdue but he played in just three games as a rookie with two tackles. He was claimed on waivers by Miami on Sept. 7, 2007, but he got into only four games with the Dolphins that season. His total tackles? Zero.
He played in one game the following season, again without a tackle, before going on Miami’s practice squad. New Orleans then re-signed him but he was waived on July 30, 2009, before playing a single down for the Saints.
That’s when the Patriots (No. 2 in the AP Pro32) stepped in, signing him just three days later, a move that revived his career when he was shifted to linebacker.
“In college, (defensive end) was my position. That’s all I played,” Ninkovich said. “My first couple of years in the NFL I was only a defensive end. I came here and learned how to play outside linebacker. So I’m just adding to the bag of tricks now.”
In 2009, Ninkovich appeared in 15 games for the Patriots as a backup and special teams player. His breakthrough came in 2010 when he started 10 of the 16 games he played and had 58 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Last season he started all 16 games with career highs of 62 tackles, 6½ sacks, two interceptions (one for a touchdown) and two more fumble re coveries. He also started New England’s three postseason games.
The drafting of linebacker Dont’a Hightower in the first round from Alabama made it easier to switch Ninkovich’s position. The starting linebackers figure to be Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, another first-rounder who has been impressive in camp, are expected to be the main defensive ends.
The Patriots had just 32 sacks last season. Their ability to reach the passer took a further hit in the offseason when Mark Anderson signed with Buffalo and Andre Carter wasn’t re-signed. The ends led the Patriots with 10 sacks each.
Now the team has two other players filling that position.
“Coming into camp, I knew that, obviously, there were going to be some changes. There’s always changes in training camp. I was able to go to a position I played before,” Ninkovich said. “It’s a little more ‘go get the quarterback, go get the ball’ type mentality. So it’s fun for me.”
At 6-foot-2, he is shorter than most of the Patriots’ recent defensive ends. But he’s confident he can fight off the blocks of 300-pound offensive linemen.
“I’ve always been pretty strong,” Ninkovich said. “Tight ends, I’ve been able to handle them pretty well (and) tackles. … I should be all right. I’ve been doing it for a long time.
“Especially in that position, it’s more about technique and leverage than it is just brute strength.”