Ninkovich rises up at critical time

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Things were looking shaky for the New England Patriots late in the fourth quarter of Sunday evening's contest with the Denver Broncos. Trying to hold a 31-21 lead, the Patriots defense needed someone to step up and make a play.

In stepped defensive end Rob Ninkovich. At the Patriots' 11-yard line, the veteran forced Broncos running back Willis McGahee to fumble, and Denver would not get the ball back.

"It was a draw play, and I saw the running back step inside, so I followed him, saw the ball in his right hand, tried to throw a hook at it," Ninkovich said. "I kept looking at the clock, wanting it to go faster, so we could get that game over with. At the end of the game, having a guy like (Peyton) Manning with the ball is always nerve-wracking because he's made those comebacks in the past."

It was the second big play Ninkovich had made in the game, adding to a third-quarter strip-sack of Manning that the Patriots converted into a touchdown.

"I was just trying to set up my moves a bit early. Those guys out there are good and they're big," Ninkovich said. "The first couple drives I was just trying to bull-rush, collapse the pocket a little bit. On that one rush, I just changed it up, swiped, got up the field and the ball was there. So we just got it out."

While first-round pick Chandler Jones is off to a hot start at one defensive end spot, Ninkovich has come on strong lately on the other end of the defensive line. He has 11 tackles, 2 sacks and 3 forced fumbles over the past two contests.

"I knew I was capable of making some big plays and being a guy that you could count on," he said. "So the first couple weeks I didn't feel that I was playing my style and the way that I would like to play. I felt the last couple weeks I've been doing things ... I've been trying to change some things."

While Jones came up with two strip-sacks in the first two games, Ninkovich caught some flak from observers for his slow start.

"The first couple weeks, I took it personally, some of the things that were going around about my style and how I was playing, and obviously that wasn't the way I wanted to have my play be evaluated," Ninkovich said. "I kind of went back, and when I was playing defensive end in college, it was kind of like a high-motor, keeping going, never stop -- not saying that I wasn't doing that early on -- but maybe I was thinking too much, as far as run (or) pass, instead of just beating the guy in front of me.

"Last week, I just changed my mentality toward, I'm just going to go out there, do my job, beat the guy in front of me, and things will happen for me."

Drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 2006 as a defensive end, Ninkovich joined the Patriots in 2009 as an inside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme. He shifted to outside linebacker in the 3-4, then outside linebacker in the 4-3, before making the move back to 4-3 defensive end this offseason.

"Sometimes moving to a different position, I was trying to make sure I would do the best I could for the team," Ninkovich said. "As a defensive end, you can't play the pass in a run situation, or play the run in a pass situation. That's something you just get a feel for. It's like riding a bike. I'm happy to be back on it."

Another wrinkle the Patriots have added in recent weeks is swapping Jones and Ninkovich between left and right defensive end, after both played exclusively on one end of the line to start the regular season.

"Earlier in the year, we were kind of just left and right, and that gives offenses a chance to say, 'This is what they are; this is what they're doing,'" Ninkovich said. "Obviously, moving around helps both of us out, generates some pressure, changes it up. Two different styles of rusher, two different players, so obviously having a change-up there is good for going against an offense."