BOSTON (CBS) – No matter where Rob Ninkovich lines up on the Patriots defense, he seems to come through when plays need to be made.
Such was the case Sunday afternoon, with the Patriots holding a 29-26 lead over the New York Jets in overtime. On 2nd-and-10 at the Jets 40, Mark Sanchez took the snap and was looking down field Instead, he found Jermaine Cunningham and Ninkovich bearing down on him.
Cunningham brought Sanchez down, and Ninkovich stripped the ball for his fourth forced fumble of the season. He fell on the loose ball, giving the Patriots the 29-26 victory and a 4-3 record that has them sitting atop the AFC East.
Patriots-Jets: 4 Ups, 4 Downs
“It was just an edge rush. Jermaine Cunningham did a great job of getting inside on the guard, so it kind of shortened that corner for me and I was able to get around the guy,” Ninkovich recalled after the game. “I saw Jermaine on his legs trying to get (Sanchez) down and he tried to throw it, so I just got the ball, knocked him down and picked up the ball.”
Ninkovich said he had one thing in mind when going after Sanchez on that final play.
“Win the game. Do my job. Whatever my job is on that particular play, do it to the best of my abilities and try and walk away with a victory,” he said. “So we did that and I’m happy.”
“We know if we just get back to some fundamentals and play technique, it’s going to lead us to play, which it did,” nose tackle Vince Wilfork said after the game. “Cunningham coming up the middle and Rob coming outside – they put that rush together. We always say when you have a one-on-one, you have to make it work. And I think those guys did a hell of a job that last play to make it work. We came out with a sack fumble to win the game. You know what? They work hard. They deserve it.”
Ninkovich never let go of the ball either. It was sitting in his locker following the game, and he was quick to show it off to the reporters gathered around.
“I just kind of had it in my hands, the game was over, and I just flipped it to someone and said put this in my locker; I’m keeping this one,” he told Steve Burton and Scott Zolak on WBZ-TV’s Sports Final Sunday night.
The Jets scored 13 points in the final six minutes of regulation, so the Patriots offense was thinking ahead to another potential scoring drive they would have to put together. Luckily for them though, Tom Brady and crew never had to take the field.
“We were kind of preparing to go back out there, and then Rob made a great play,” Brady said after the win. “Those are the kind of plays you need. If you want to win games, you’ve got to make plays and that’s a great example of a game-winning play. We’ve all got to start making more of those.”
Ninkovich’s versatility was once again on display on Sunday, with the seven-year veteran splitting time at the defensive end and linebacker positions. Along with the forced fumble and recovery, Ninkovich filled up the stats sheet with six tackles, 1.5 sacks, a pair of quarterback hits and two tackles for a loss.
“Anything they ask me to do. It helps the team to be able to play linebacker and then jump down to [defensive] end,” said Ninkovich. “Obviously if Dont’a [Hightower] isn’t there then I’m able to step in and Jermaine [Cunningham] is able to bump in at [defensive] end. We’re kind of versatile as far as [the] edge. It’s good for us overall for me to be able to jump down to [defensive] end and then have Hightower come in. It just kind of keeps the offense guessing on who’s playing what.”
“He’s at the end of the line, however you want to slice it up, whether he’s up or down or end or linebacker, whatever you want to call it, he’s an end of the line type player,” head coach Bill Belichick said of Ninkovich. “Rob does a good job for us. He made a big play on the running play there, came inside and made the hit in the overtime series and obviously the strip. He’s around the ball and always seems to play well against the Jets. He’s got a lot of big plays against those guys.”
Ninkovich struggled to start the season, calling himself out following New England’s Week 3 loss to the Ravens. Since that game, he’s totaled 21 tackles, 3.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
It hasn’t mattered where he lines up, Ninkovich is making plays for the Patriots defense.