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Pats DE Ninkovich has nose for finding the ball

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Pats DE Ninkovich has nose for finding the ball

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Rob Ninkovich has a knack for forcing fumbles. He's also pretty good at recovering them.

He even does both on the same play.

``That's hustle,'' Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said. ``Rob's a guy whose engine's always going.''

It was really revving last Sunday when the defensive end dropped into the middle of the field late in the third quarter and intercepted a pass by Houston's Matt Schaub in New England's 41-28 divisional playoff win over the Texans.

And when the Texans tried an onside kick with 5:11 left in the fourth, Ninkovich pounced on it.

``I wanted to get the ball,'' he said, ``that's for sure.''

He always does - and is prepared to grab some more fumbles Sunday when the Patriots (13-4) face the Baltimore Ravens (12-6) in the AFC championship game.

``As a defensive player, you're always thinking the ball is a key,'' Ninkovich said. ``You're looking at the ball on the snap. You're trying to find the ball in pursuit. And when people are around the ball making plays, you're always aware of where it's at.

``If it's fumbled or if it's on the ground, you've got to get on it. Let everyone else decide what's going on, as long as you get the ball it'll all work itself out.''

His nine recoveries of opponents' fumbles over the past three seasons are the most by any defensive player during those years, according to Elias Sports Bureau. This season, he was tied for second in the league with four recoveries and forced five fumbles.

Ninkovich even got one of each on the same play, the one that ended the Patriots 29-26 overtime win over the New York Jets in the seventh game of the season.

Stephen Gostkowski had kicked the go-ahead field goal for New England, but New York still had a chance to tie or win. The Jets had the ball at their 40-yard line when Ninkovich beat right tackle Austin Howard and hit Mark Sanchez high while Jermaine Cunningham got him low for a sack. The ball came loose and Ninkovich pounced on it.

Game over.

``He's always been like that,'' said Tony Samuel, a former assistant at Purdue who coached Ninkovich as a senior with the Boilermakers. He is now coach at Southeast Missouri State. ``He's got that uncanny vision. He's got that way of just being Johnny-On-The-Spot, doesn't he?''

He sure does.

Ninkovich was in the right spot when the Patriots signed him as a free agent. Until then he had played in just eight games in three seasons with the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins. Injuries slowed him after the Saints drafted him in the fifth round in 2006, but he's been healthy with the Patriots.

And coach Bill Belichick found a way to use his talents.

``He has good body control, good balance, good hand-eye coordination, all those things, in addition to being a strong guy that's fast and has good quickness,'' Belichick said. ``If he has to drop into coverage as a defensive end, he can fall back on some of the things he's learned as a linebacker.''

Ninkovich played in 15 games with the Patriots in 2009, making 10 tackles on defense and 11 on special teams. He started 10 games as an outside linebacker in 2010, then started all 16 in 2011. This season he shifted to defensive end, starting every game. He led the team with eight sacks and was sixth with 61 tackles.

``He's solid,'' Ravens center Matt Birk said. ``He plays hard, like they all do on that defense. But he plays the run, rushes the passer and also drops into coverage. He's one of those hybrid, very versatile guys. He kind of does whatever they ask him to do. That makes him very valuable. Just a heck of a player.''

Samuel realized that during the year he coached defensive ends at Purdue in 2005. Ninkovich had eight sacks, intercepted two passes, forced two fumbles and recovered one.

``It doesn't always have to be a fumble, but he usually has some difference-making kind of play,'' Samuel said. ``He's just able to do it all. He's a great pass rusher. He's got real good moves.''

He called Ninkovich ``a tweener,'' bigger than typical outside linebackers and smaller than dominating defensive ends. At 6-feet-2, 250 pounds, he's aware of that.

``Any time you're not 6-6 (and overpowering) you have to do your very best to have great technique and outwork people,'' he said. ``So I pride myself on having good hands, good vision, knowing where the ball is, and that comes with just years of experience.''

Ninkovich isn't physically imposing. He's not a showman on the field. And he's soft-spoken.

``I think people kind of overlook his ability,'' McCourty said. ``He makes a lot of plays and those turnovers are always key.''

One reason he makes them? He's always alert, safety Steve Gregory said.

``He has good football instincts,'' Gregory said. ``He has a knack for the football. Those are some things that sometimes you can't teach. He takes pride in doing that and he does it well.''

Ninkovich has been compared to another Patriots outside linebacker who wore No. 50.

Mike Vrabel had no starts in four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then started 12 games in 2001, the first of his eight seasons with New England. He is now an assistant coach at Ohio State, his alma mater.

``I've never met him,'' Ninkovich said. ``Obviously, being here the last four years you definitely hear stories about how great he was, how smart he was. ... I'm still trying to fill the shoes that he left. They're pretty big.''

Ninkovich did catch two passes, both for touchdowns, as a tight end at Purdue. Vrabel had eight receptions, all for touchdowns, playing tight end with the Patriots. But Ninkovich doesn't expect to be sharing time at that position with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, once he recovers from the broken left arm that landed him on injured reserve Thursday.

``I think we have a few good tight ends here,'' Ninkovich said. ``So I'll stick to what I'm doing.''

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AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this report.

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Ranking the Ravens' five likeliest rookies to make an impact in 2020

Ranking the Ravens' five likeliest rookies to make an impact in 2020

The Ravens had, by nearly all accounts, one of the NFL’s best drafts in April. 

With their 10 picks, they addressed just about every need on the roster — edge rusher being the holdout — and got more talented at each position they needed to. 

And while the Ravens are hopeful all of their drafted players can fill a role next season, a few players like Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington have clear roles carved out as depth players for their rookie season, and safety Geno Stone appears destined for a special teams role to start his career. 

Here are the five Ravens’ rookies that can make an immediate impact in 2020:

1. Patrick Queen

The first one is as obvious can be. 

Not only is Queen the team’s first round draft pick, but he also likely filled the biggest need on the team and will join the Ravens and immediately be handed a starting role. 

Queen made 85 tackles for the national champion LSU Tigers last season and, at just 20-years-old, was one of the draft’s top risers last season at LSU.

He’s perhaps the most talented player of the Ravens’ 2020 draft class and with a starting role so clearly carved out for him, the room for strong production is right there.

2. Devin Duvernay

Duvernay will join a Ravens receiving corps in need of a second wide receiver to prove himself. With Mark Andrews at tight end and Marquise Brown as the team’s two clear top options in the receiving game, there is still an opening for a third option to emerge from the group. The speedster from Texas could be it. 

With 4.39 40-yard dash speed, Duvernay will immediately be one of the fastest players not only on the offense, but on the team. He posted 106 catches last season for 1,386 yards at Texas, but his toughness was what stood out to the Ravens. 

If he’s able to prove his worth early on, he could find himself as the team’s third option in the receiving game.

3. James Proche

This might seem out of sorts for Proche to be on this list so high, but hold up. 

Yes, he was the second-to-last pick of the Ravens’ draft. Yes, he’s just a rookie and draft capital matters in terms of who gets a look, and how much they do.

But Proche is also likely going to be the team’s punt and perhaps kick returner to start the season. There’s not a rookie on this list, besides Queen, who is in better shape to have some kind of starting role so quickly. 

Add into the debate that Proche is joining the same depth chart as Duvernay, and it’s clear there’s a path for the sure-handed receiver to find his way onto the field sooner than some may think.

4. J.K. Dobbins

Dobbins has perhaps the highest ceiling on this list, and the floor is higher than perhaps anyone but Queen for his rookie year. The problem is, the ceiling involves some exceptions. 

He’ll join a crowded backfield with Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, not to mention that his new quarterback is the league’s best running quarterback as well. 

Dobbins might end up having the greatest long-term impact on this list, but the odds of him taking on a major role in the offense — while he’s essentially guaranteed at least some kind of role in 2020 — would require him stepping up as the clear No. 1 running back, or a host of injuries. 

5. Ben Bredeson

Bredeson might make the quietest impact of anyone on this list, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for him to make the biggest. 

In a logjam to replace Marshal Yanda’s right guard spot, Bredeson figures to be the likeliest rookie to take over the position. If he’s able to, he’ll certainly have earned it.

The rookie started all four seasons at Michigan and certainly has the experience in big time games to step in and contribute immediately.

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Could the Ravens split touches between their four running backs in 2020?

Could the Ravens split touches between their four running backs in 2020?

The Ravens have the best kind of problem brewing in their backfield, in that they might have too many mouths to feed.

Should the Ravens keep four running backs on the roster next season, they’ll be left with the issue of how to get all of them involved in the offense. But at a position that is so hard on the body, that’s not necessarily a bad thing at first glance.

Mark Ingram, the team’s starting running back, is 30-years-old and had more than 200 carries last season. Gus Edwards posted 133 carries. Justice Hill saw the field the least out of the three and had just 58 carries in 16 games. And the team’s newest toy in the backfield, J.K. Dobbins, carried the ball 301 times last season and 687 times total in college.

Essentially, the Ravens’ running backs have some miles on their bodies and it’s important to keep them fresh. But how?

The Ravens ran the ball 596 times last season, 98 more times than the second-place 49ers did. The Ravens were also one of three teams — the others being the Cardinals and Titans — that ran the ball for more than five-yards-per-carry.

A large part of that efficiency revolved around quarterback Lamar Jackson’s ability to scramble out of the pocket, as he carried the ball 176 times last year for 1,206 yards — the most ever for a quarterback. His dynamic abilities kept the pressure off the Ravens’ running backs and allowed them to mostly be the second-threat for a defensive gameplan.

But perhaps what the Ravens did most impressively last season was that they accomplished everything without a true workhorse rusher.

Ingram’s 202 carries placed him 20th in the league in amount of carries, while Jackson’s 176 placed him 23rd. Jackson and Ingram were the only two players with less than 217 carries to rush for more than 1,000 yards. Edwards, the team’s clear third option in the rushing attack, carried the ball 133 times — 34th in the league. For a team that ran the ball more than anyone in the league, and for more yards than anyone in the league ever had, that's an impressive way to keep guys fresh.

Now with Dobbins in the mix, and Hill another year into his career, paired with the Ravens’ desire to become a more balanced team from the one that passed the ball just 44 percent of the time last season, keeping all four backs involved could prove difficult.

The simplest answer, though, is to get rid of one.

Edwards would be the likeliest option, as a team could swoop in and realize the Ravens’ surplus of talent at running back and make a minor deal to bring Edwards in as a running back that could compete for a starting role.

A closer examination of who is on the market still, however, shows that’s not easy to pull off.

With a handful of veteran free agent options on the market still, it’s not likely a team would shell out any noteworthy draft capital to bring Edwards or even Hill onboard during training camp. In that case, it’d likely be worth it for the Ravens to just hang onto their stable of running backs in case of injury or poor performance.

If all four are on the roster next year, though, they’ll be left with figuring out how to manage their snap counts.

The Ravens attempted 1,064 plays last season, 596 of which were runs, 440 were passes and 28 were sacks. Ingram was involved in 231 of those plays (21.71 percent), Edwards was involved in 140 (13.15 percent) and Hill was involved in 73 (6.86 percent).

Of the Ravens’ total offensive plays, running backs account for 41.72 percent in either rush attempts or receiving targets.

 

Over the offseason, they continued to invest at the skill positions. Baltimore drafted Dobbins 55th and wide receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche at 92nd and 201st overall, respectively. That’s not accounting for the increased health of wideout Marquise Brown and the expected improvement of receiver Miles Boykin, either. 

While an increase in pass attempts could account for more plays with more stopped clocks, the Ravens still ranked seventh in total offensive plays from scrimmage last season. The league’s leader, the Eagles, ran 1,104 plays. Even if the Ravens are able to run 1,100 plays next season, nearly 40 more than they ran in 2019 and just shy of the league's leader from a year ago, there is still a finite number of possibilities for the Ravens’ to get everyone involved.

If they stick with their running mantra, Boykin or Brown might not see the second-year jumps everyone is hoping for. Perhaps Mark Andrews, who led the team in receptions and targets a year ago, sees a dip in production with more faces in the crowd.

But if Jackson attempts more passes in the 2020 season and the wide receivers get more involved, the simple answer is that someone in the backfield is going to get left out.

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