In the celebration over securing a first round bye for the New England Patriots, an important piece of news that was somewhat lost was the injury to defensive end Rob Ninkovich. The Patriots defensive line this season has been strong largely in part to the play of their two defensive ends, Ninkovich and rookie Chandler Jones. But if Ninkovich’s injury keeps him out it could cause problems for the Patriots defense.
For the first half of the 2012 season the Patriots defensive secondary struggled greatly. Much of the struggles were due to injuries to key players such as Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Will Allen, and Ras-I Dowling. When rookie Alfonzo Dennard recovered from his injury, the team traded for Aqib Talib, and moved Devin McCourty from cornerback to safety that group improved greatly.
Prior to the Patriots defensive secondary regaining health it was the defensive line that stopped opposing offenses. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and defensive ends Ninkovich and Jones have had the Patriots ranked in the top ten in rushing defense this year. Jones was injured for two weeks but against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins it didn’t impact the outcome.
During the second quarter of the Patriots 28-0 win over the Dolphins Ninkovich suffered a hip injury which forced him out of the game. It’s still unknown whether or when the team’s leader in sacks and forced fumbles will return. Luckily for the Patriots they did earn the second seed in the AFC giving them a first round bye. If he does miss any of the games he will be sorely missed.
If Ninkovich can’t go in two weeks his spot will be taken by Trevor Scott who’s improved this season but isn’t as impactful as Ninkovich or Jermaine Cunningham who just returned Sunday after serving a four game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs. Either way this will put pressure on the rookie Jones to make plays. While Jones has had a great rookie season, much of his success has been because of the attention by opposing offenses to Ninkovich.
The Patriots defensive line has been one of the best in the league this year largely because of the play of Ninkovich and Jones. While both players have played exceptionally well this season, they’ve made a greater impact because they play on the same line. If Ninkovich’s injury Sunday keeps him out for any the Patriots playoff games, the defense will be hampered. If not, the Patriots could be headed for a second straight AFC championship.