FOXBOROUGH — Rob Ninkovich gave plenty of signs that, despite him leaving Sunday’s game with a foot injury and not returning, it won’t be the latest season-ending injury for one of the team’s best defensive players.
Ninkovich was walking around in the locker room after the game with barely a limp, proof that he hadn’t suffered a serious injury, the way Vince Wilfork (Achilles’) and Jerod Mayo (pectoral muscle) did. Ninkovich politely declined an interview request, saying he’d talk later this week.
Three Patriots, Ninkovich included, left the game with injuries, and none returned to the game. Receiver Austin Collie left with a knee injury, and safety Steve Gregory was forced out with a thumb injury.
Ninkovich hobbled off the field in the third quarter, and after being looked at briefly on the sideline, was escorted to the locker room by the medical staff. But he returned not long after (the first positive sign), then worked on pushing off in front of team doctor Thomas Gill. Ninkovich jogged back to the locker room, then came back out with his helmet, giving his teammates a thumbs-up. He didn’t reenter the game, but that might have been because of the Patriots’ comfortable lead, plus the fact they’re entering their bye week.
Stevan Ridley had season highs in carries (26) and rushing yards (115), and scored a pair of touchdowns to increase his season total to a team-high six. He also fumbled once, but unlike prior giveaways, wasn’t benched as a result.
With the Steelers’ defense coming into the game 27th against the run, it was a safe bet that Ridley would get plenty of chances. He received the vast majority of the carries, 26 of the team’s 35.
The fumble came on the opening drive of the third quarter, but not on a rushing play. Ridley caught a pass from Tom Brady near the sideline, and was stripped of the ball by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.
But Ridley was sent right back in the game when the Patriots got the ball back, and had his number called the first two plays. He carried for 3 yards, then caught a 5-yard pass from Brady. In addition to his big rushing day (it’s the fifth 100-yard game of his career), Ridley added three catches for 9 yards.
Talib sits again
Since the bye week is next on the schedule, cornerback Aqib Talib will go more than a month between game snaps, because he was one of seven Patriots who were inactive against the Steelers. Talib, who hurt his hip Oct. 13, has practiced since then, but has missed the last three games.
Talib was one of two injured players declared inactive. Running back Leon Washington has missed four straight games because of an ankle injury.
The other five inactives were healthy scratches, with rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins the biggest surprise. Thompkins, who leads the team with four touchdown catches, saw his snap count drastically reduced the week before against the Dolphins (13 of 66), but Sunday marked the first time the rookie didn’t suit up. The other inactives were receiver Josh Boyce, linebacker Steve Beauharnais, offensive lineman Chris Barker, and defensive end Jake Bequette.
If things had turned out differently, receiver Emmanuel Sanders would have played in Sunday’s game as a member of the Patriots, not the Steelers. The Patriots and Sanders agreed to a one-year, $2.5 million contract during the offseason, but because Sanders was a restricted free agent, the Steelers had the right to match the offer, which they did.
Sanders had six catches for 98 yards, and spoke afterward about how close he came to playing for New England.
“It was close. At the end of the day, though, I’m in the black and yellow right now and that’s all that matters,” Sanders said. “[The Patriots are] an awesome organization. They’re a winning organization. I feel like Bill Belichick is a genius in my eyes as far as offensively and defensively and from a schematic standpoint. I’ve got a lot of respect for the Patriots.”
Thrown right in
Five days after joining the Patriots in a trade-deadline deal, defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga made the start at nose tackle and was credited with one pass defended. It capped a whirlwind week, which started with him a member of the Eagles before Tuesday’s trade.
“Preparing for this week, I really had no problem about it. It’s my 10th year in the league, so I must have that mind-set,” Sopoaga said. “If you are a professional, you’ve got to be a professional and be ready.
“I felt good. I felt great. Winning is always a great feeling.”
Season of taking
The Patriots wasted no time extending their consecutive games streak with at least one forced turnover. On the first series of the game, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked by Ninkovich and fumbled. Joe Vellano recovered, the first of three turnovers forced by the Patriots. Devin McCourty had his first interception of the season, and rookie Duron Harmon had his second, returning it 42 yards. It’s the 36th straight game the Patriots have forced at least one turnover . . . Matthew Slater had his first kickoff return of the season, taking a third-quarter kick back 10 yards . . . Mat McBriar, who was signed last week after the Steelers released former Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko, had three punts for a 46.7-yard average . . . Playing in his second game of the season, Andre Carter had his first sack, one of five recorded by the Patriots. Chandler Jones had two more (his season total is 8½), and Ninkovich and Dane Fletcher each had one.