The success of the New England Patriots over the past decade has often depended on low-profile, hardworking players. Nobody on the 2012 team personifies that more than defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who finally got some well-deserved recognition Sunday after tying a New England record for the most forced fumbles in a single season.
The Patriots shellacked the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11 by a score of 59-24. A pivotal moment in the game came late in the third quarter when the Colts were attempting to drive while down by just 14. Ninkovich had a strip-sack of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and also recovered the fumble, which led to a 24-yard Rob Gronkowski touchdown catch just one play later.
According to ESPNBoston’s Field Yates, the forced Luck fumble was already Ninkovich’s fifth of the season and tied a Patriots all-time single-season record.
Ninkovich was a 2006 fifth-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints out of Purdue University. He played sparingly with the Saints and then the Miami Dolphins before being picked up as a free agent by the Patriots in 2009. Since that time, he has developed into a reliable starter for a team that is often maligned for its defense.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick loves putting disruptive defenders on the field, and Ninkovich has proven to be just that during his time with New England. In 57 games with the Patriots, he has 17.5 sacks, four interceptions, seven forced fumbles and nine fumble recoveries. Opposing offenses have to account for his presence at all times.
At 251 pounds, Ninkovich is undersized by the standards of traditional defensive ends. However, he plays the position with some linebacker-like skills that allow him to play all over the line, similar to former Patriots star linebacker Mike Vrabel.
Fittingly, Ninkovich tied Vrabel for the team record with his forced fumble. Vrabel got his five forced fumbles in 2007. With six games left to play this season, Ninkovich has an excellent chance of having the record to himself by the end of the year.
Forced fumbles are a relatively new statistic, as the NFL only started keeping track of them in 1991 because their game-changing potential. Ninkovich’s play on Sunday showed just how valuable they can be.
The Patriots have won six of their last seven games, and their record now stands at 7-3, good for first place in the AFC East.
In addition to his forced fumble, Ninkovich is also tied with rookie Chandler Jones for the team lead with six sacks, giving him a great case for being their most valuable defensive player so far this season. If he continues his high level of play, he can help the Patriots go deep into the playoffs and hopefully reach the Super Bowl.
Statistics via Pro-FootballReference
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