FOXBORO, Mass. — Rob Ninkovich‘s name hasn’t been mentioned very often when it comes to Pro Bowl voting, but it should.
There’s an obvious reason the New England Patriots defensive end continues to go unrecognized, and it’s his lack of sacks. Ninkovich has just seven sacks on the season, despite playing nearly every down, but it’s excusable. Ninkovich has been asked to do much more than just rush the quarterback.
When the Patriots face read-option offenses, it’s Ninkovich’s job to contain those athletic signal-callers rather than pressure them. New England has faced a number of quarterbacks who can move out of the pocket this season: E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith, Josh Freeman, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill and Cam Newton.
Ninkovich also has been asked to drop back into coverage more than last season, when he had eight sacks, though much less than in 2011, when he brought down the passer 6.5 times. Ninkovich has dropped into coverage on 86 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s up from 65 last season and down from 204 in 2011.
The Patriots ran more 3-4 looks this season than last, which forced either Ninkovich or Chandler Jones into coverage on passing downs out of the “regular” defense. Ninkovich mostly played 4-3 defensive end in 2012. It’s nice to have a player with Ninkovich’s versatility — he played strongside linebacker in the 4-3 in 2011 — but it also can be a detriment since he wasn’t allowed to do what he’s best at: get after the quarterback.
“To be honest, it’s been like that since I’ve been here,” Ninkovich said Friday about his versatility. “I’m used to doing different roles, playing linebacker, playing D-end, special teams a couple years back. It’s just something that I’m used to. I really don’t know anything different than being multiple and doing different things.”
Ninkovich’s seven sacks certainly aren’t bad, but for the amount of pressures he’s had this season, it’s low. Ninkovich has the fifth-most pressures among 4-3 defensive ends this year (62), according to Pro Football Focus, but the 17th-most sacks. Jones has the ninth-most pressures, and he’s second in sacks with 11.5. Ninkovich’s sacks-to-pressures ratio was much higher last season. He had eight sacks — 18th among 4-3 defensive ends — to 38 total pressures — 28th among players at his position.
The traditional stats say Ninkovich was a more productive pass rusher last season, but in looking deeper, he’s actually been much more disruptive in 2013.
“This year, it’s just playing defensive end another year and being more comfortable in the position,” Ninkovich said. “I think it’s just settling down and playing a position that I’ve played before, just haven’t done it in a while. So, last year was my first year, this is my second year. Seeing things and just sets and whatnot, you just get better at it.”
One might think sacks are much more valuable than hurries or quarterback hits, but all three stats affect the opposing passing game. Hurries and quarterback hits force incompletions, interceptions and shorter throws.
“Well, if I get one more sack, I tie what I did last year,” Ninkovich said, smiling. “It’s very similar right there. I would say just getting after the quarterback, getting pressure on the quarterback, that’s big, getting him uncomfortable. As a defensive lineman, the more you can get pressure on the quarterback and not be comfortable in the pocket, the better you’ll be as a defense. I’ll say this year, just gotta get one more and I’ll be all right. Maybe get two and I’ll be happy.”
There’s the theory that if a player is asked to do much, he won’t shine in one category. Ninkovich’s versatility is very valuable around New England, but if he wasn’t being asked to spy on mobile quarterbacks or drop back into coverage, he could be an even better pass rusher and start receiving some recognition for the Pro Bowl, as he deserves.
“Really, you gotta be on the field to make the plays, so I think if you come off the field in certain situations, that doesn’t give you the best opportunities,” Ninkovich said. “So I’d rather be out there every play and doing everything I can.”
Ninkovich might be the most versatile defensive end in the NFL. He’s fantastic at setting the edge against the run, despite his smaller stature for the position. He can drop back into zone coverage or take on a tight end or running back going out for a pass. He can get after the quarterback at a high rate. Ninkovich would be a front-runner for Patriots defensive MVP, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll receive national attention — not without the sexy stats.