FOXBOROUGH — Rob Ninkovich isn’t losing any sleep over the Patriots’ lack of sacks this season.
New England has dropped the quarterback just 13 times through eight games. Only the Saints, Giants, and Steelers (11 each) have fewer takedowns.
It’s not that Ninkovich is pleased with the numbers, but the veteran defensive end has a glass-half-full take on the situation.
“I’m happy with wins,’’ Ninkovich said Tuesday. “I think the sacks stat sometimes is a little bit overrated. There’s teams with plenty of sacks with no wins.’’
For example, the 4-5 Bills lead the league with 30 sacks. In fact, four of the top six teams have losing records. The Bills, Titans, and Eagles would all be home for the playoffs if the season ended today.
Conversely, the 7-2 Raiders (13 sacks) and 5-3 Giants would be in.
Still, the number is jarring, especially considering the Patriots ranked second in the NFL with 49 sacks last year. The Patriots are on pace for 26 sacks, which would be the lowest total of the Bill Belichick era.
Certainly one of the big reasons is that top sackmeister Chandler Jones (12.5) now brings the heat in Arizona, but there are other factors at play.
Ninkovich, perennially one of the team’s top producers (42 sacks over the last seven seasons), missed the first four games of the season because of a suspension. He is trying to get his groove back as he works at both defensive end and linebacker.
Additionally, several younger players have flashed and almost assuredly will continue to have an impact. Chief among them are tackle Malcom Brown (two sacks, three quarterback hits) and end Trey Flowers (two sacks, five QHs).
Another thing to consider is the Patriots have played some above-average athletic quarterbacks this season, including Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor twice and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill. Mobile QBs are traditionally harder to get your hands on, and oftentimes the Patriots only rush three or four against them in attempt to spread out and limit big plays.
On Sunday night, the Patriots face another mobile quarterback in Seattle’s Russell Wilson, and Ninkovich talked about the balancing act of when to contain and when to attack a player with his skill set.
“You definitely have to do both, but you have to be smart,’’ he said. “It’s not just one guy. You just have to do a great job collectively as a defense to not let his running ability and his throwing ability hurt you. I think it’s a group effort.’’
Ninkovich acknowledged it can be frustrating to play against a player of Wilson’s caliber. One second you have him dead to rights, the next he’s 10 yards downfield. Facing Taylor can only help when preparing for Wilson.
“You have to be controlled but yet still aggressive,’’ said Ninkovich, noting that that mind-set comes with patience and experience. “I think that we’ve had some really good looks at that in our division.’’
Though sacks are the goal, applying pressure consistently goes a long way. The Patriots have landed 32 QB hits this season.
“Getting him on the ground, helping the DBs out, making sure he doesn’t get the ball off is the most important thing,’’ said veteran tackle Alan Branch. “But the next best thing is to make them uncomfortable, hurry up his reads, and then possibly he makes a mistake because he’s rushed.’’
Jabaal Sheard, who leads the Patriots with 3.5 sacks, 6 QB hits, and 14 hurries, agreed.
“You have to get as much pressure on the quarterback as you can, and if you sack him, you sack him,’’ said Sheard. “But it starts with stopping the run and keeping the quarterback in the pocket.
“When you get your shot, you take your shot.’’
The Bills had some success pressuring Wilson this past Monday night, sacking him four times for 37 yards and holding him to 10 yards on three rushes. One caveat: Wilson has been dealing with a balky knee since a Week 1 injury vs. the Dolphins.
Some of the pressure came up the middle, which was key in preventing Wilson from stepping up and shooting through lanes. It’s a strategy that could be employed by the Patriots, who sacked Wilson three times in Super Bowl XLIX but also yielded 39 rushing yards on three scrambles.
Branch said the ability to get movement in the middle is the “luck of the draw sometimes. You have to slide the right way. Some people go with power, some people try to hit the edge.
“It’s hard. If you’ve got squeeze protection on you, it’s going to be hard to get pressure up the middle just because it’s tough to beat two guys at the same time.’’
Branch, who overlapped with Wilson in Seattle in 2012, called the quarterback “a special player.’’
Chris Long, who knows Wilson well from their NFC West battles when Long played for the Rams, went a bit further when asked what challenges he posed.
“He’s fast. He’s got a great arm. He’s creative. He’s smart,’’ said Long, who came into the season with 54.5 career sacks but has added just one so far this season. “He’s everything.”