GREEN BAY, Wis. — Even though Danny Aiken made the trip, Rob Ninkovich knew that he might be pressed into service as the Patriots long snapper. So he spent plenty of practice time last week, just in case, working with punter Ryan Allen, who also doubles as the holder on kicks.
Sure enough, Aiken was forced to miss the game against the Packers because of the concussion he suffered in the game before, so the task fell to Ninkovich, who got his start in the NFL as a long snapper for the Saints. He’s since become one of the Patriots’ best pass rushers, with 33½ sacks in his five-plus seasons with the team.
So there was Ninkovich, a bit of a throwback at historic Lambeau Field on Sunday, playing every snap on defense, then coming onto the field for special teams, handling the long snapping duties on punts and kick attempts.
“When somebody goes down and your number’s called, you’ve got to go out and perform at a high level. The expectations here are always high, I understood that,” Ninkovich said. “I knew that my job was to go out there and throw strikes. I think I was able to do that.
“I work at it, I work at it a lot. I was able to go out there and do my job.”
Allen punted four times, and while his numbers weren’t all that impressive — he averaged 37.0 yards, with a long of 41 — he said it had nothing to do with the snaps.
“He did fantastic, honestly, he did a great job. Came in and executed very well on every single rep,” Allen said. “I worked with him this week, so nothing out of the blue. I knew who I was working with and I trusted him. He’s very poised and collected when he’s asked to long snap.”
The last snap that Ninkovich made was late in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots attempting a 47-yard field goal attempt and trailing by 5 points, 26-21. The snap was true, but Stephen Gostkowski’s try sailed wide right, only his second miss of the season.
Jonas Gray stood on the Patriots sideline for the duration of the game a week ago against Detroit, in uniform but not used, likely a form of discipline after he was late for a practice. Perhaps Gray is wiggling his way out of the doghouse, because he was on the field for two snaps against the Packers, carrying the ball once for 4 yards.
Hey, it’s a start.
“It stings when you lose like that, but I was glad to be back out there and asked to contribute. Looking forward to getting back to it this week,” Gray said.
Gray was quick to compliment fellow running back Brandon Bolden, who came into the game with just 15 carries on the season, and none since the Oct. 12 game at Buffalo. But he rushed three times Sunday for 17 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown in the second quarter that put the Patriots on the board. It was Bolden’s first touchdown of the season.
“That’s the thing about all these guys in this locker room, everybody’s ready when their number’s called,” Gray said. “When his number was called he played with great vision. It was one of those plays, I was telling some of the guys, where a player shoots a deep 3-pointer and you’re like, ‘No! No! No!’ and then when it goes in you’re like, ‘Yes!’ He did really well.”
No players had been ruled out on Friday or downgraded on Saturday, so the seven players the Patriots would have to deem inactive was anybody’s guess.
Actually, some of the guesses were easy. Rookie running back James White had missed the last three games, and with the team recently signing LeGarrette Blount, and Gray not missing any practices last week, White’s chances of playing were slim. Offensive lineman Cameron Fleming has been dealing with ankle and finger injuries, and Jordan Devey had been inactive for the past four games. Defensive end Chandler Jones returned to practice on Wednesday, but a hip injury had cost him four straight games. That’s now five after Jones was inactive against the Packers.
In addition to Jones, White, Fleming, and Devey, the other three inactives were linebacker Chris White, who missed Friday’s practice with an ankle injury; Aiken, and rookie defensive back Malcolm Butler.
That made receiver Aaron Dobson active for the first time since the Oct. 12 game at Buffalo. Dobson, a 2013 second-round draft pick, had been a healthy scratch for the past five games; Sunday was only his fourth game of the season.
Dobson played four offensive snaps, and was targeted once, on a deep ball in the third quarter that fell incomplete. Dobson came up limping after the play, and did not return to the game.
Brandon LaFell set career highs in catches, yards, and touchdowns. He came into the game needing 2 catches, 3 yards, and 1 score to set season personal bests.
LaFell didn’t wait long to tie his previous best for receptions in a season, catching a 12-yard slant on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage. That was LaFell’s 49th reception, which matched his effort in 2013, when he spent the last of his four seasons with the Carolina Panthers. The 12-yarder also sent LaFell over his previous best of 677 yards, set in 2012.
LaFell’s second catch of the game was good for a 2-yard TD late in the second quarter, his sixth of the season. That’s one more than he had last season. He added his seventh touchdown on the season early in the fourth quarter, on a beautiful back-shoulder throw from Tom Brady.
LaFell finished with five catches for 38 yards.
“It was a big play at the time, got us back into it,” LaFell said.
There were positives for the Patriots to take away from Sunday’s game, including the fact that they didn’t commit a turnover for the seventh time in 12 games. That might seem like it would be expected because of their ability to protect the ball this season, but the Packers are great at forcing turnovers. They had forced at least one in 19 straight games, which had been the league’s longest current streak . . . On his first completion of the game, Brady went over 3,000 passing yards on the season, the 12th time he’s done that. It’s tied for the fourth-most in NFL history, behind Brett Favre (18), Peyton Manning (16), and Dan Marino (13) . . . Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung left the game after being injured on the same play, but both returned not long after . . . Linebacker Darius Fleming was active for the Patriots, making his NFL debut one day after being promoted from the practice squad . . . The announced crowd of 78,431 is a record for Lambeau Field . . . With his third field goal of the first half, Packers kicker Mason Crosby went over 1,000 career points . . . Jordy Nelson’s 45-yard touchdown was his 10th of the season, giving the Packers two receivers with at least 10 TD catches in a season for the first time in their storied history. Randall Cobb also has 10.