Pats look for an edge with Ninkovich at DE

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Pats look for an edge with Ninkovich at DE

FOXBORO - Major defensive change for the 2012 Patriots was first augured during the draft.

The selection of purebred, upfield pass rusher, Chandler Jones and the subsequent selection of appliance-sized linebacker Dont'a Hightower meant that the personnel would more closely fit the scheme. And Bill Belichick said as much during the draft, noting the front-seven personnel needed tweaking.

Spending first round picks on spots the team traditionally tried to fill with NFL bargain bin castoffs and has-beens meant two things. First, if Jones and Hightower fit, the defense would be simplified. Second, if they worked out, the players who'd manned their spots would be available for different duties.

Which brings us to Rob Ninkovich.

A defensive end at Purdue and in his first three vagabond NFL seasons, when Ninkovich landed in New England, he joined the long line of DEs introduced to life away from the line, standing up and playing outside linebacker.

Nobody could have predicted how well he'd take to it. By 2011, Ninkovich became a true pass rush threat off the edge and a heady playmaker off the line. Vrabelesque? Yeah. A reasonable facsimile.

But the personnel and scheme change to a base 4-3 alignment means Ninkocvivh is SOL at OLB. Now he's back to defensive end. Hand in the dirt, playing (generally) over the tight end on the left side of the defense where most teams like to run.

"Coming into camp I knew that obviously there were going to be some changes theres always change in training camp so I was able to go to a position Ive played before, which is defensive end," said Ninkovich. "Its a little more of 'go get the quarterback, go get the ball' type mentality, so its fun for me.

Since absolutes are not something Bill Belichick embraces, the coach spoke generally about what Ninkovich will be doing in 2012.

"Robs always played at the end of the line of scrimmage so thats still where he plays," Belichick said when asked about the move to defensive end. "Some things hes doing this year hes done in the past, maybe in different frequencies or percentages but hes still fundamentally an end-of-the-line player. I see him as an end-of-the-line player thats the way I would classify him. You can call him whatever you want, it doesnt matter to me."

The geography is less important than the work orders, though, and Ninkovich's are changing a bit.

We know he can rush. He's proven that. How well will he stack and set the edge in the running game? That's a question. Doing it from a two-point stance off the line is different than doing it from a three-point stance where you're an arm's length from the tight end or tackle. Will he get enveloped? Will he get pushed downfield?

"I've always been pretty strong," Ninkovich countered. "Tight ends, I've been able to handle them. Tackles, both of em, at the same time. I should be all right. I've been doing it for a long time, its just something you get your techniqie right, get your hand placement right. In that position it's more about technique and leverage than it is about brute strength."

In each off the past two seasons, Ninkovich has had two picks. He also had a very respectable 10.5 sacks in the two years.

"The more things you can do, the more versatile you are for the team, the more you're gonna help the team out.

"In college, (defensive end) was my position, my first couple of years in the NFL that's the only position I played. I came here and learned how to play outside linebacker. It's something I'm adding to the bag of tricks. If you can play defensive end, if you can play outside linebacker, overall it helps everything."

Patriots-Steelers injury report: Seven Pats listed as questionable

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Patriots-Steelers injury report: Seven Pats listed as questionable

FOXBORO -- The Patriots will head into Sunday's AFC title game with seven players listed as questionable, including three receivers. 

Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan have all been limited in practices this week due to their injuries. Amendola has been dealing with an ankle issue since a Week 13 win over the Rams, while Mitchell has not played since injuring his knee in Week 16 against the Jets. Hogan suffered a thigh injury against the Texans and left the game in the third quarter.

Both Hogan and Mitchell indicated this week that they were moving in the right direction in terms of their recoveries. One would think that the Patriots would need at least one, if not both, to help stress the back end of the Steelers secondary this weekend.

Hogan has been the team's most consistent down-the-field threat this season, averaging a whopping 17.9 yards per catch during the regular season. Against the Texans, before his injury, he reeled in four passes for 95 yards. 

Mitchell, meanwhile, had a very productive second half of his rookie season before he was hurt. He compiled 25 catches for 306 yards between Weeks 11 and 16, establishing himself as one of Tom Brady's go-to targets. 

The overall health of the Patriots receiving corps -- which will also include Julian Edelman and Michael Floyd -- will bear watching when the Patriots and Steelers kick off in two days.

The injury report for Sunday's Patriots-Steelers game:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

QUESTIONABLE
WR Danny Amendola (ankle)
TE Martellus Bennett (knee)
RB Brandon Bolden (knee)
LB Dont'a Hightower (shoulder)
WR Chris Hogan (thigh)
WR Malcolm Mitchell (knee)
DL Jabaal Sheard (knee)

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

QUESTIONABLE
TE Ladarius Green (concussion/illness)
LB James Harrison (shoulder/triceps)
RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (concussion)

NOT LISTED
RB Le'Veon Bell (not injury related)
K Chris Boswell (illness)
LB Anthony Chickillo (ankle)
S Sean Davis (shoulder)
C B.J. Finney (illness)
WR Darrius Heyward-Bay (illness)
DE Ricardo Mathews (ankle)
QB Zach Mettenberger (illness)
S Michael Mitchell (not injury related)
QB Ben Roethlisberger (not injury related)
LB Vince Williams (shoulder)