FOXBOROUGH — Being on the field and staying on the field is serious business for Rob Ninkovich.
Last Friday, reporters missed seeing Ninkovich on the practice field, a day after he was added to the Patriots’ practice report with an ankle injury. The initial assumption was that the veteran was absent because of it. It was later learned he was on the field practicing, his No. 50 jersey tucked up, making him hard to spot.
In the locker room, Ninkovich confirmed he did practice, and mocked and reprimanded those who doubted his presence, noting he hadn’t missed a practice all season.
On Monday, after playing against the Bills despite the ankle issue, he proudly remarked he and Chandler Jones led the league in snaps for defensive linemen.
No defensive lineman in the NFL was on the field more than Jones or Ninkovich, both of whom played more than 95 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps in the regular season, an astonishing number and a testament to the productivity, durability, and effectiveness of both defensive ends.
According to NFL game books, Jones played in 1,124 of 1,148 snaps, 98 percent; Ninkovich played 1,096 snaps, 95.5 percent.
Each also played on special teams, with Jones notching 159 plays and Ninkovich 73.
When asked about the achievement, Jones, a second-year player, called Ninkovich, who was heading into the weight room, into the conversation.
Despite some differences, the two quickly have become close, with Jones respecting Ninkovich like an older brother, someone he talks to about nearly everything, from football to personal life.
So it wasn’t surprising when a humorous exchange took place, complete with Jones completing Ninkovich’s thoughts.
Question: “What does it mean to you, that you have been on the field so much?”
Jones: “Well, I’ll answer it first; I want him to answer it as well. But what it means to me, I feel like our coaches and our coaching staff, it means a lot to me that they put a lot of trust into us and a lot of [reliance] on us to be out there that much. And I enjoy it; I enjoy doing it.’’
Ninkovich: “It’s a pride thing for me. I don’t want to come off anytime.”
Jones: “When I was in college I didn’t start my whole career, so I was hungry to get on the field. I don’t like sitting on the bench; I wouldn’t like it. Me being out there for those snaps, I enjoy it.”
Ninkovich: “For me, the more you can help the team and be on the field and do different things, it’s — Jones intercedes: ‘Better. Better for you, better for the team.’ — I watched enough from the sidelines, I don’t want to watch anymore. I watched enough in the beginning of my career.”
Jones: “And I feel like he’s such in competition with me in a good way that he’s out there like, ‘Chandler’s getting those snaps, I’m getting those snaps too.’ ’’
Ninkovich: “Yeah, he keeps me young [smiling]. I have to go lift.’’
As Ninkovich noted, he spent a lot of time on the sideline in his pre-Patriots career, trying to latch on with the Saints, who drafted him in 2006, and then with the Dolphins.
Even after signing with New England in 2009, he had to work his way into the defensive rotation, getting his first chance on special teams.
Jones was a first-round pick in 2012, and was playing a lot before spraining his right ankle in Week 11, then his left not long after returning from the first injury.
He focused on strengthening his lower body during the offseason, and missing just 24 snaps over 16 games proves the effort paid off.
The Patriots have relied on both throughout the season, with the pair combining for nearly 20 sacks – Jones had 11½, the most for a Patriot since Mike Vrabel’s 12½ in 2007, and Ninkovich had 8, matching his total from last season.
Ninkovich also is one of the Patriots’ best defenders against the run, and Jones has showed strong improvement in that area.
As the calendar turns to January and New England awaits its first playoff opponent, the duo will be counted on even more. They welcome the work.
“Thank God I’m still healthy enough,” Jones said, knocking the side of his wooden locker stall, “and we can just keep moving forward.”