FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Rob Ninkovich has a knack for forcing fumbles. He’s also pretty good at recovering them.
He even does both on the same play.
“That’s hustle,” Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said. “Rob’s a guy whose engine’s always going.”
It was really revving last Sunday when the defensive end dropped into the middle of the field late in the third quarter and intercepted a pass by Houston’s Matt Schaub in New England’s 41-28 divisional playoff win over the Texans.
And when the Texans tried an onside kick with 5:11 left in the fourth, Ninkovich pounced on it.
“I wanted to get the ball,” he said, “that’s for sure.”
He always does – and is prepared to grab some more fumbles Sunday when the Patriots (13-4) face the Baltimore Ravens (12-6) in the AFC championship game.
“As a defensive player, you’re always thinking the ball is a key,” Ninkovich said. “You’re looking at the ball on the snap. You’re trying to find the ball in pursuit. And when people are around the ball making plays, you’re always aware of where it’s at.
“If it’s fumbled or if it’s on the ground, you’ve got to get on it. Let everyone else decide what’s going on, as long as you get the ball it’ll all work itself out.”
His nine recoveries of opponents’ fumbles over the past three seasons are the most by any defensive player during those years, according to Elias Sports Bureau. This season, he was tied for second in the league with four recoveries and forced five fumbles.
Ninkovich even got one of each on the same play, the one that ended the Patriots 29-26 overtime win over the New York Jets in the seventh game of the season.
Stephen Gostkowski had kicked the go-ahead field goal for New England, but New York still had a chance to tie or win. The Jets had the ball at their 40-yard line when Ninkovich beat right tackle Austin Howard and hit Mark Sanchez high while Jermaine Cunningham got him low for a sack. The ball came loose and Ninkovich pounced on it.
“He’s always been like that,” said Tony Samuel, a former assistant at Purdue who coached Ninkovich as a senior with the Boilermakers. He is now coach at Southeast Missouri State. “He’s got that uncanny vision. He’s got that way of just being Johnny-On-The-Spot, doesn’t he?”
He sure does.
Ninkovich was in the right spot when the Patriots signed him as a free agent. Until then he had played in just eight games in three seasons with the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins. Injuries slowed him after the Saints drafted him in the fifth round in 2006, but he’s been healthy with the Patriots.
And coach Bill Belichick found a way to use his talents.
“He has good body control, good balance, good hand-eye coordination, all those things, in addition to being a strong guy that’s fast and has good quickness,” Belichick said. “If he has to drop into coverage as a defensive end, he can fall back on some of the things he’s learned as a linebacker.”
Ninkovich played in 15 games with the Patriots in 2009, making 10 tackles on defense and 11 on special teams. He started 10 games as an outside linebacker in 2010, then started all 16 in 2011. This season he shifted to defensive end, starting every game. He led the team with eight sacks and was sixth with 61 tackles.
“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.”