Best of Belichick Era: Number 21 -- Rob Ninkovich


Best of Belichick Era: Number 21 -- Rob Ninkovich

I'm spending 50 days ranking the top 50 players of the Bill Belichick Era, from No. 50 down to No. 1. (Click here for a criteria on how I made my selections.)


Today we reach . . . .

Years With Patriots: 2009-present
Games: 95
Playoff Games: 12
Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014)

Ask a bar full of Pats fans to name the three greatest plays of the Patriots’ Super Bowl win over Seattle and you probably won’t hear the name Rob Ninkovich mentioned. But every great play of the final quarter was set up in large part by a Ninkovich play with 14:19 left.

The Patriots trailed, 24-14, and Seattle had the ball at its own 39 facing a third-and-7. This was a must-have stop. Ninkovich, coming off the right side of the Seattle offensive line, came up with an eight-yard sack of the elusive Russell Wilson. The Seahawks punted and the Patriots put together two touchdown drives (and another white-knuckle defensive stop) to win their fourth Super Bowl.

More obscure from the same game? Third-and-one at the Patriots 8 with 11:51 remaining in the third quarter. Ninkovich stuffs Marshawn Lynch for no gain. Seattle settles for a field goal and has a little something to think about for later in the game.

You forget about Ninkovich sometimes, partly because he’s such a fixture. He’s missed one game since 2009. He played 95 percent of the Patriots defensive snaps in 2013, 94 percent in 2014. Defensive ends aren’t supposed to be able to do that. But Ninkovich does. And every year, you can write him down for 8.0 sacks (his total the past three seasons), close to 80 tackles, and fumble forces/recoveries. In 2012, Nink created five fumbles and recovered four, both near the top of the NFL.

The players who got New England’s early success started get a lot of love on this list. But we can’t overstate their accomplishments at the expense of the later guys. For instance, Willie McGinest -- who we still haven’t gotten to -- had 38.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 6 fumble recoveries, 3 interceptions and 317 tackles from 2000 through 2005. From 2009 through 2014, Ninkovich had 35.5 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries, 5 interceptions and 385 tackles. Different positions and they were different ages at the time, but you get the point (I hope).

No flash. All substance. That’s been Ninkovich.

How well does Tom Brady play against former Patriots coaches?

How well does Tom Brady play against former Patriots coaches?

The Patriots will face the Detroit Lions Sunday night in the Pats latest matchup against a former Bill Belichick assistant. The Lions hired Matt Patricia after the defensive guru spent 14 seasons under Belichick in New England. But so far, Patricia and the Lions are off to a rough start (0-2), and it could get worse -- it's been well-established that former Belichick pupils have struggled against the Patriots. 


But what about Tom Brady against Patriots assistants-turned-head coaches? Patricia will be the fifth former coach Brady will face, joining Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel, Bill O'Brien, and Josh McDaniels. Patricia will join Mangini and Crennel as former defensive coordinators to scheme against Brady, while O'Brien and McDaniels went from calling plays for Brady to trying to stop him. Who has the advantage, Brady or his coaches?


Belichick first discovered Mangini as a ball boy in Cleveland. Mangini eventually became New England's defensive coordinator for a season before accepting the head coaching job with the New York Jets. Because he was in the AFC East, Brady played Mangini the most of any former coach. Brady and the Pats went 4-2 in the regular season and 1-0 in the postseason against Mangini's Jets. Mangini's defenses picked Brady four times in those six games, but Brady still threw nine touchdowns. He completed 116 of his 190 pass attempts (61 percent) for 1,346 yards.

As head coach of the Browns in 2010, Mangini's team beat Brady and the Pats 34-14 for one of their five victories that season. Brady went 19-for-36 for 224 yards and two TDs in that game.


The defensive coordinator for the Patriots' first three Super Bowl champion squads had no answers for Brady and the New England offense in a matchup against the Browns in 2007. The 2007 NFL MVP completed 22 of 38 passing attempts (58 percent) for 265 yards, three TDs, and zero interceptions. 


Bill O'Brien called plays for the Patriots from 2009 to 2011, but is probably most known in New England for his infamous yelling match with Brady on the sidelines during a game in 2011. O'Brien is now in his fifth season as the coach of the Houston Texans and his defenses -- which, for the record, have been very good -- have had absolutely no success against Brady. The Patriots are 3-0 in regular-season games and 1-0 in the postseason when Brady starts against O'Brien. Brady threw for 1,168 yards in those four games, completing 91 of 142 passes (64 percent) and throwing 12 TDs and just three interceptions. 


McDaniels, who is in his second stint as the Patriots offensive coordinator, has a great relationship with Brady, as shown in Brady's Facebook docu-series Tom vs. Time. But in 2009, the two faced off against each other when in McDaniels' first season as Broncos head coach. McDaniels got the win in overtime, but Brady played solid. He was 19 of 33 (58 percent) for 215 yards, with two TDs and no picks. 


It's been business as usual for Brady against his former coaches, with a record of 8-3 in the regular season and 2-0 in the playoffs. In those 13 games, he completed 61 percent of his passes for 3,218 yards, 28 TDs and seven interceptions. Brady will look to continue his success against Patricia this weekend, as the Patriots look to get back on track with a win.

-- Will Lefkovich