Patriots DE Ninkovich producing in new position


Patriots DE Ninkovich producing in new position

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Rob Ninkovich charged into the Denver backfield and knocked the ball out of Peyton Manning's hand. One play later, the New England Patriots had a third-quarter touchdown.

Then, with less than four minutes left in the game and the Broncos rallying, the linebacker-turned-defensive-end forced Willis McGahee to fumble and the Patriots recovered again.

``That,'' McGahee said, ``changed the game.''

New England kept the ball the rest of the way and beat Denver 31-21 last Sunday. For Ninkovich, it was another step forward in his transition to a new position for coach Bill Belichick, who places a premium on having players who can contribute in several spots.

``Just having the versatility helps everything,'' Ninkovich said, ``helps the defense, helps the team, helps me.''

He'll have a much different challenge on Sunday in Seattle. Instead of facing the 36-year-old, 6-foot-5 Manning, he'll try to sack the Seahawks' more mobile quarterback, 23-year-old, 5-foot-11 rookie Russell Wilson.

The keys to stopping him are collapsing the pocket so Wilson can't escape the rush, Ninkovich said.

``Sometimes watching the tape you can see that the rush will get to him and he's able to kind of just get around some guys,'' he said. ``It definitely is different (playing against) him as opposed to a guy who's 6-4 that can stand tall in the pocket. He's obviously got to move a little bit to get to some of those windows'' where he can have a clear line of vision between big linemen.

Ninkovich's responsibilities are simpler this season at his new position. He rarely has to worry about covering receivers. His job is to beat his blocker and tackle the ball carrier.

But that blocker almost always is bigger than the 260-pound, 6-foot-2 Ninkovich, who usually was blocked by a tight end last season.

``You just have to play with a different type of leverage and mentality, obviously, (when you're) going against a guy that you're giving up a lot of weight to,'' he said, ``but it's all about technique and working your hands and not letting them get underneath you. So being a little bit shorter ... helps you get underneath those guys. They don't like that too much.''

Last season, his seventh in the NFL and third with the Patriots, Ninkovich started all 16 games at outside linebacker. He made a career-high 62 tackles, had 6 1/2 sacks, returned one of his two interceptions for touchdowns, forced one fumble and recovered two.

The drafting of outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the first round this year allowed the Patriots to move Ninkovich to end. In the first three games, he had just six tackles and a half sack. But in the other two, he made 11 tackles with two sacks and three forced fumbles.

``I don't think I was frustrated,'' Ninkovich said. ``I just knew my time would come to make some plays. As a defensive end, you're not going to get the big numbers of tackles that some linebackers do, obviously, because you're in a different spot and you're not always having the ball (get) to you every time.''

But he has made some big plays.

The Patriots were leading the Broncos 24-7 when Ninkovich beat right guard Orlando Franklin to the outside, came up behind Manning and smacked the ball loose with his right hand. Vince Wilfork recovered at the Broncos 14-yard line.

``The first couple of drives I was trying to just bull rush, trying to collapse the pocket a little bit,'' Ninkovich said. ``Then on that one rush I just changed it up and swiped (at the ball).''

He forced a more critical fumble when Denver had a second-and-10 at the New England 14 yard-line with 3:48 left and the score 31-21. McGahee got the ball on a draw play and Ninkovich jarred the ball out again.

``He's been playing well all year,'' middle linebacker Jerod Mayo said, ``even though those big plays just started showing up.''

Ninkovich played end in college at Purdue, but his role in the Patriots system is much different.

He's playing better now that he's focusing on defeating his blocker and going after the player with the ball.

``Defensive end is a position where everything happens pretty fast,'' Ninkovich said. ``I've been able to change a couple of style techniques in my game.''

And if he's ever needed at another position, he should be prepared.

``In a Bill Belichick defense, you never know what position you may be in,'' Wilfork said, ``so it's good to know multiple positions, and Ninkovich is one of the guys that moves around a lot, from linebacker to sometimes inside, sometimes end, but he does a very good job of knowing his role. Any given Sunday, Bill may say, `we want to move you here.'

``You've got to be ready for it and he's answered the challenge every week.''


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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

The Eastern Conference standings are so closely bunched as of today that the third-place Cleveland Cavaliers are only 1 1/2 games ahead of the sixth-place Philadelphia 76ers. With roughly a dozen games remaining for each NBA team, much can and likely will change over the next several weeks.

That is common for this time of the year, but a closer look suggests we could be in for some chaos in the final stretch. There are lopsided remaining schedules and impending personnel changes which could all contribute to one of the wildest regular season finishes in recent memory.

The Wizards are smack dab in the middle of the East playoff race and have their own circumstances to navigate. Let's take a team-by-team look at the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, knowing the top two seeds are all but locked up by the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics...


3. Cleveland Cavaliers (41-29, 12 games left)

Monday was a crazy day for the Cavaliers. First, they announced their head coach Tyronn Lue is taking a leave of absence to deal with an undiagnosed health issue. He will be replaced by associate head coach Larry Drew in the interim as he hopes to heal up before the playoffs.

Then, news broke they were getting Kevin Love back from a broken wrist after missing 21 games. Love returned to put up 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in a big win over the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The Cavaliers will be without their coach for an undefined period of time, but now have their second-best player back on the court. That makes their final part of the season extra fascinating.

The Cavs are the team to watch of this group. Even though this season has been filled with turmoil, they still have LeBron James. He and Love have helped form the core of the last three Eastern Conference champion teams. If they pick things up, it's not crazy to consider them among the favorites to get out of the East again.


4. Indiana Pacers (41-30, 11 games left)

The Pacers are mostly healthy as they only feature a slew of minor injuries to big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. But Indiana's remaining schedule is unusually tough and it could make the difference in where they end up.

With only 11 games remaining, the Pacers still have to play the first-place Toronto Raptors once and the Golden State Warriors twice. Six of their last eight games will be on the road. They also see the Heat, Pelicans, Nuggets and Clippers.

The Clippers are currently ninth in the West and battling to make the playoffs. The Pacers will play them twice.

Keep in mind the Wizards own the season series over Indiana and will have a playoff seeding tiebreaker if they end up with the same record. Also worth noting is the Pacers have been much better at home (24-13) than on the road (17-17) this season.


5. Washington Wizards (40-30, 12 games left)

Though the Wizards' schedule is finally letting up soon from the 13 straight playoff teams stretch they have had to endure dating back to February, they too have a tough road ahead. The Wizards still have to play the Spurs (twice), Rockets, Cavaliers, Celtics and Nuggets. Four of their last six games are on the road and they have three back-to-back sets in their final seven games.

That's brutal. They may not have to see the defending champions twice like Indiana does, but the Wizards don't exactly have it easy.

The Wizards will, however, get John Wall back at some point. The five-time All-Star is slowly but surely working his way back and could participate in a full practice by the end of the week. Ideally they will get some games under his belt before the playoffs, but any time an All-NBA player is coming back to your team it's a good thing.

The problem is that there is little room for error in the standings and head coach Scott Brooks will have to reinsert Wall into the lineup during a tough schedule and while Wall is on a minutes restriction. It will be a tricky task to balance his lineups. 


6. Philadelphia 76ers (39-30, 13 games left)

The Sixers may have the most ideal road ahead of these four teams, at least in terms of their schedule. They still have the Timberwolves, Nuggets, Cavs and Bucks. But none of those teams are the juggernauts that Golden State, Houston and Toronto are. And of their final 13 games, the Sixers will play nine against teams outside of the playoff picture.

Philly also does not have to reincorporate a major piece into their rotation, like the Cavs do with Love and the Wizards with Wall. Their biggest injury is to Markelle Fultz, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick. If he does return this season, it will likely be in a minimal role, at least to start.

What could work against the Sixers is their inexperience and recent struggles against good teams. The Sixers are relying on very young players who have never been here before to carry the way. And since Valentine's Day, Philly has just one win against a team above the .500 mark, when they beat the Cavs on March 1. During those 14 games since Feb. 14, they have beaten up on the bad teams but lost to the Wizards, Bucks, Pacers and Heat (twice), basically all the teams surrounding them in the standings. 

Philly also lost their season series against the Cavs and Pacers, tied with the Wizards and are down 2-1 against the Bucks with one game to go. They may go to the finish line without a playoff tiebreaker against all the teams they would want one against.

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Ryan Grant reportedly signing with Colts after failed physical with Ravens

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Ryan Grant reportedly signing with Colts after failed physical with Ravens

It looks like Ryant Grant has found his new home, again.

After a failed physical with the Ravens, James Jones of NFL Network reports Grant plans to sign with the Colts.


Grant originally agreed to a four-year, $29 million deal with the Ravens, before the team pulled the offer citing an ankle injury that dated to the Redskins' final regular-season game, according to reports.

Baltimore eventually signed Michael Crabtree to a three-year deal, while Grant had visits with the Colts and Raiders.

His agent, Rocky Arceneaux, says Grant has been working out, running routes, and his ankle had been cleared by Dr. Robert Anderson in a second opinion.

In 2017 with the Redskins, he appeared in all 16 games, with 45 receptions for 573 yards and four touchdowns.