Rob Ninkovich had a part in the New England Patriots’ 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts. It was each play.
The ninth-year defensive end was persistent against Colts tackle Joe Reitz, guard Lance Louis and quarterback Andrew Luck. And while that persistence seldom registered in the highlights of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, it registered elsewhere at Gillette Stadium.
In the backfield, in the flats, and in the score.
Ninkovich’s presence was visible as early as the second play from scrimmage, as the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Patriot bounced out of engagement to hurry the quarterback’s throw to tight end Dwayne Allen.
Others crashed inside, Ninkovich crashed outside on the 2nd-and-9 play. And by not allowing Luck the chance to set his feet, the pass dove ahead of the nine-touchdown target running a shallow cross.
It was a subtlety from a 30-year-old edge-rusher whose NFL career has been built on consistently being one piece to the puzzle. But those subtleties have added up for Ninkovich, well beyond his time spent searching for a niche as a snapper, special-teamer and practice-squadder for the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins.
Ninkovich has played in all 16 games for the Patriots since 2010. He’s notched over 50 tackles in each season since then, along with a total of five interceptions and 34.5 sacks. He wasn’t credited with many of those impact plays against Indianapolis. But the plays he did make illustrated why he was on the field for 52 of them.
No. 50 defended the run for 12 snaps, dropped into coverage for 11 snaps and rushed the passer for 29 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He recorded three tackles, yet also eight hurries, two quarterback hits and two deflected passes against a former No. 1 overall pick who completed only 12.
He did so often and from everywhere.
Ninkovich was seen off the ball in New England’s 3-3 front. He was seen off the edge as a stand-up linebacker in a two-up, two-down front. He was seen off the tackle with his hand on the turf as a seven-technique defensive end.
And he was seen as a one-technique defensive tackle, stunting from a third-down front built to neutralize blocks on the inside.
He backpedaled, sidestepped, straight-lined or arced around the defensive line constructed with Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano, Alan Branch and Akeem Ayers. He traveled towards the football from there.
Ninkovich forced the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback to throw with his back foot, trunk, or just his fingertips. He continued to do so, even as the Patriots sent extra rushers and tasked only six to shield the markers behind them.
It proved impactful, as Indianapolis netted a total of 17 first downs and went 3-for-11 on third downs.
It also proved collective.
The Patriots made Luck uncomfortable from the first level to the third level, where the likes of cornerback Kyle Arrington and safety Devin McCourty worked low to high on 1,300-yard slot receiver T.Y. Hilton, and a mix of Logan Ryan and Darrelle Revis worked against the likes of wideouts Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief and Reggie Wayne.
Only two of those wide receivers ultimately caught passes from Luck in the heavy Foxborough rain. Another two of the quarterback’s passes were caught by Revis and linebacker Jamie Collins.
Yet Ninkovich nearly caught a pair of his own.
He initially did so with chase, jamming tight end Jack Doyle out of play action before redirecting parallel to the line on a 2nd-and-5. The way he played it thenceforth – staying at home – contained both Luck’s rollout and Doyle’s hitch in the flat.
The improvisation by design would be followed up less than six minutes later, as Ninkovich turned to his eyes.
He read and anticipated as he rushed and retreated on a 1st-and-10 pass. And with two hands on the throw intended for tight end Coby Fleener’s slant route, the play’s intentions did not come to fruition the way the Colts had planned.
They landed on the ground instead, along with the other plans Ninkovich disrupted on Jan. 18.
The seven points Luck and the Colts put on the scoreboard were indicative of it.
Ninkovich did his part in a game where each New England defender had a part in Indianapolis’ offensive sum. And by keeping Luck in the pocket and unable to step into his throws, he and the Patriots’ front quietly allowed the back to do theirs.