FOXBORO, Mass. – After the first few weeks of this season, rookie Chandler
Jones was being lauded for returning some semblance of a pass rush to New
England. But where Jones received praise for his work, defensive counterpart
Rob Ninkovich only found ire and disrespect.
That feeling of contempt and the encompassing criticism that
surrounded his play over the first few weeks of the season only fueled the
veteran defensive end's fire, though. And after playing a vital role in the
Patriots win for a second straight week on Sunday, it appears that fuel supply
could be running on full the rest of this season.
"I just feel that the first couple weeks, I took it
personally some of the things that were going around about my style and how I
was playing," Ninkovich said. "Obviously, that wasn't the way I
wanted everyone [to think], or I wanted my play to be evaluated."
Since then, Ninkovich has been a stud, though, and there's
no sign of slowing down.
Ninkovich has now recorded a sack in each of the Patriots
past two games after racking up just 1/2 a sack in total during the team's
first three games this season. But while the added pressure on opposing
quarterbacks has been important, his determination and quickness off the edge
have led to so much more.
The Patriots forced three more turnovers during Sunday's
31-21 win, causing Peyton Manning and the Broncos to cough up the football at a
number of key moments. The three takeaways raised the Patriots' league-leading
forced fumbles count to nine (with eight recovered), and further extended New
England's reign in the turnover game with an NFL-best plus-10 margin. And Ninkovich
played a major role in those game-changing plays.
Ninkovich forced two of the Broncos' three fumbles on Sunday,
first getting to Manning early in the third quarter with a strip-sack to give
the Patriots the ball back and keep the momentum high. Then with the Broncos
driving deep inside the Patriots red zone near the end of fourth quarter,
Ninkovich laid another big hit on running back Willis McGahee, knocking the ball
out and allowing Tom Brady and the offense to close out the win.
"I knew I was capable of making some big plays and
being a guy that you can count on," Ninkovich said of his improved play.
"I was just trying to do my job and do the best I could for the
Reflecting back on his lack of production during the first few
weeks of the season, Ninkovich finally feels like he's asserting himself as a
reliable option along the Patriots defensive line.
"The first couple of weeks I didn't feel I was
playing my style and the way I would like to play," Ninkovich added.
"So I felt the last couple weeks I'm doing some things that I've been
trying to change."
The change has certainly been positive for the Patriots, as
the combination of Ninkovich and the standout rookie Jones has helped create
one of football's most impressive and opportune defensive units. And as
Ninkovich continues to improve along with Jones, opposing defenses will have an
even more difficult time trying to gameplan against the Patriots.
"We're two different type players … He's just a
different style player," Ninkovich said of the tandem. "So obviously
[offenses know] 'I'm going against Chandler Jones and I'm going against Rob.' So,
it's just two different style players you have to adjust to."
The versatility and differences existing between the two
could present an awfully dangerous challenge for any offensive line to protect
again. But while Jones may continue receiving all the praise and attention for
his work, Ninkovich is at least finally earning his keep.