FOXBOROUGH — Rob Ninkovich charged into the Denver backfield and knocked the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hand. One play later, the New England Patriots had a third-quarter touchdown.
Then, with less than four minutes left in the game and the Broncos rallying, the linebacker-turned-defensive-end forced Willis McGahee to fumble and the Patriots recovered again.
“That,” McGahee said, “changed the game.”
New England kept the ball the rest of the way and beat Denver 31-21 last Sunday. For Ninkovich, it was another step forward in his transition to a new position for coach Bill Belichick, who places a premium on having players who can contribute in several spots.
“Just having the versatility helps everything,” Ninkovich said, “helps the defense, helps the team, helps me.”
He’ll have a much different challenge on Sunday in Seattle. Instead of facing the 36-year-old, 6-foot-5 Manning, he’ll try to sack the Seahawks’ more mobile quarterback, 23-year-old, 5-foot-11 rookie Russell Wilson.
The keys to stopping him are collapsing the pocket so Wilson can’t escape the rush, Ninkovich said.
“Sometimes watching the tape you can see that the rush will get to him and he’s able to kind of just get around some guys,” he said. “It definitely is different (playing against) him as opposed to a guy who’s 6-4 that can stand tall in the pocket. He’s obviously got to move a little bit to get to some of those windows” where he can have a clear line of vision between big linemen.
Ninkovich’s responsibilities are simpler this season at his new position. He rarely has to worry about covering receivers. His job is to beat his blocker and tackle the ball carrier.
But that blocker almost always is bigger than the 260-pound, 6-foot-2 Ninkovich, who usually was blocked by a tight end last season.