FOXBOROUGH — With his third-quarter interception against the Texans on Sunday night, Rob Ninkovich provided yet another example of why it might be a tossup between him and Superman for who has the better timing.
At this point, you have to wonder if his superpower translates to real life. Is Mrs. Ninkovich constantly frustrated by her husband always getting the last bit of milk in the carton? How many countless drivers around Patriot Place have been frustrated by Ninkovich landing the prime parking spot right in front of the store at the last moment?
“I can’t explain that,” Ninkovich said,after the Patriots’ 41-28 victory put them in the AFC Championship game for the second straight year. “I mean, I guess I’m just blessed. Certain times it’s right place, right time. Good call by the coaches to put me in those situations. I’m just happy that I’m able to make those plays and help the team.”
He certainly did that in a big spot on Sunday. The Texans, trailing, 24-13, with 4:20 left in the third quarter, were in the middle of a 10-play drive and at the Patriots’ 37-yard line.
A touchdown would get the Texans to within 4 points, and put them in good shape to make it a four-quarter game, which is what they wanted.
But Ninkovich had other plans, dropping into coverage and leaping high to pick off Matt Schaub’s throw intended for James Casey. The Patriots scored six plays later to make it 31-13 and, for all intents and purposes, end the game.
“He’s had a great season,” coach Bill Belichick said of Ninkovich. “His production is right up there at the very top of the league at his position. He’s made big plays for us in the past — sacks, strips, fumbles, recovered fumbles, tackles for loss, all that. We know he’s got good hands. He’s had many interceptions before; made a great play there.
“We blitzed from the outside, he dropped down inside, got underneath the route, and really made a great catch on the ball. It was a high, tough catch, but Rob’s a good athlete. He makes it look easy, he catches the ball well. That was a huge play for us, big stop, and we were able to convert that into points offensively. That was a big key play in the game for us.”
And as opposed to his sack/fumble that ended the first victory over the Jets in overtime, this was not just a great play by Ninkovich. It was a great team play.
Blitzes are not always designed with sacks as the end result, although those are nice. Sometimes you blitz simply to force the quarterback to throw quickly and short of the first-down marker, which the Patriots did a few times against Schaub.
The Patriots won’t say it, but that blitz at that time was a pressure specifically designed to fool Schaub by creating an illusion.
It started with the call from Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. It was a play that several players said had been practiced several times.
“It’s just one of those plays that you practice all the time, and just to see it come through is a good feeling,” end Trevor Scott said.
The Patriots were in their dime package, with safety Tavon Wilson in a hybrid role. Jerod Mayo was the lone linebacker in the middle of the field.
When Casey went in motion before the snap, Mayo made a check — or adjustment — to the play.
“There are multiple plays within a call, that if something happens, then you can change it,” Mayo said. “I just had to get myself lined up. Sometimes when I give people directions, I forget myself.”
Ninkovich, who moved from his usual right end position to the A gap between the center and right guard, said Mayo’s check changed the play for him.
“Mayo is the leader and the captain, so he was able to bark a call, I listened, and I proceeded to play that call,” Ninkovich said.
What Schaub saw was Mayo loop around left tackle on a blitz, and Wilson come on a delayed blitz after he — subtly but importantly — got a hand on Casey and then went on a blitz toward the right guard.
The Patriots, from film study, knew how Schaub would react to a blitz. In every offense, if a certain player rushes, then one or more receivers will break off their routes, otherwise known as a “hot” route.
The Patriots knew that Casey was going to be Schaub’s hot route, and were willing to bet that he would rush his throw to Casey.
Schaub read blitz, and figured that since Mayo was the only linebacker on the field, that the middle would be wide open to throw to his hot route.
What he didn’t see was that Ninkovich, though he started on the line, had replaced Mayo as the middle linebacker in the defense and was in perfect position to pick off the pass.
“We liked the look with James working over the middle and they dropped an end out there and I just didn’t get enough height on it,” Schaub said. “[Ninkovich] jumped up and made the play and ultimately he’s the one that came down with the ball, but we had a play with James just over the top of that defensive end.”
Safety Steve Gregory was also in perfect position over the top after faking help against the seam route.
“It was just one of those formations that we called our defense to and we had a blitz on,” Gregory said. “Rob made a great play, though. He popped out. Obviously, the quarterback didn’t see him, and he made a great play on it. But that was my guy so I had to go cover him, and I kind of baited it and went over from the other side. But Rob made a great play. If he’s not there, I probably just have to make a tackle, but he made a great play.”
It was one of those situations where the Patriots took what they saw on film, applied it to the practice field, and then executed it correctly in the game.
“Any time you work on a play for weeks and weeks and weeks and then you go out and execute it perfectly, it’s always a good play, and we’re very excited about that play,” Mayo said. “But you probably won’t see it again.”
Ninkovich will just have to find another way to make a timely play on Sunday against the Ravens.
“You can’t just stay in one thing, especially in this league,” he said. “The more you kind of change things up a little bit, different looks, that’s what affects quarterbacks because they’re not really expecting an interior guy to drop back. It was just a great play for us. I was happy to come up with the ball, it was a big play.”