The New England Patriots dismantled the Indianapolis Colts en route to a 45-7 victory in the AFC Championship game, securing a trip to Glendale, AZ for Super Bowl XLIX. While the offense continued its familiar dominance on the ground against a susceptible Colts defensive front, the Patriots pass rush harassed superstar quarterback Andrew Luck all night long.
Although they recorded zero sacks in the contest, the New England defense generated constant pressure on Andrew Luck, collapsing the pocket around him and forcing the QB into numerous hurried throws. The combination of a successful pass rush and solid coverage resulted in one of Luck’s worst statistical games in his brief NFL tenure, as he completed a career-low 36.4% of his passes with a career-low 3.82 yards per pass attempt.
Sending more than four pass rushers just twice all game, the Patriots’ ability to pressure without sacrificing coverage left Luck with insufficient time to allow his receivers to run their intermediate and deep routes and little space to complete short throws in heavy traffic underneath.
Setting the tone early, defensive end/outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich ‒ Luck’s number one tormentor throughout the game ‒ pressured the QB on his first three dropbacks. Ninkovich’s effort likely earned him not only a game ball from head coach Bill Belichick after the win, but also an earful of compliments from the affable Luck during the game.
No Luck, Just Ninkovich
Displaying his versatility within the Patriots defense, Ninkovich rushed the passer 29 times and dropped into coverage on eleven occasions (including plays ending in penalties). After reviewing the film, the hybrid defender racked up three QB hits, batted down two passes at the line of scrimmage, and pressured Luck eleven times (defined by hurrying/altering a throw or forcing a QB to move off his spot).
In coverage, Ninkovich allowed three completions within his area for 14 yards, and often pulled double duty as a perimeter rusher assigned to jam receivers off the line before starting into his pass rush. The little things ‒ such as re-routing receivers and abandoning a pass rush to close a passing lane ‒ don’t show up in the box score, but remain key components in throwing off the timing of routes and delaying a QB’s progression.
Ninkovich, who lined up almost exclusively on the defense’s left side, may have only finished with three tackles, but his all-around performance was instrumental in holding Luck and the Colts to a season-low seven points.
Pump Up The Jam
As a perimeter defender in defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s front, Ninkovich has a range of responsibilities beyond rushing the passer. From setting an edge against the run to dropping into coverage, Ninkovich’s to-do list sometimes requires multitasking on a single play. The sequence below is a good example, as he jams tight end Coby Fleener (#80) at the line of scrimmage before heading into the backfield:
Despite sending just a standard three-man rush, the Patriots disrupt Luck. For Ninkovich, it’s a two-part play ‒ hit the tight end on his release into the route and then go after the QB.
With defensive tackle Vince Wilfork occupying three offensive lineman, Ninkovich takes advantage of his one-on-one matchup with second string right tackle Joe Reitz (#76) who, at some point this winter, will wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat screaming, “Gotta block #50!” With tight coverage across the middle and Ninkovich bearing down, Luck has to scramble out of the pocket.
Luck picks up 6 yards on the run ‒ turning a potential disaster into a positive. But it’s possible that, without the re-route by Ninkovich and subsequent pressure, Fleener would have been a viable second read option on the apparent wheel route against cornerback Brandon Browner.
Re-Routing and Deflecting
In a similar situation on the same drive, Ninkovich once again jams a tight end but shows great awareness by playing the pass instead of continuing to rush the QB:
With tight end Jack Doyle (#84) crossing the formation on the play-action bootleg, Ninkovich measures up the unexpected target, ensuring no free release on the route into the flat. Following his jam on the tight end, Ninkovich recognizes that the distance between himself and the QB cannot be made up in time. Instead of directly pursuing Luck on the rollout, the defender angles himself toward the sideline, reading the eyes of the QB and doing his best to position himself in the middle of the potential passing lane. Sure enough, Luck attempts to sneak a short toss to Doyle, but Ninkovich swats the pass away.
The Shadow Knows
If a pass rusher is unable to sack the QB or alter/hurry a throw, he can still make an impact. In the play below, Ninkovich again demonstrates his ability to read Luck’s eyes and slam shut a throwing window:
With Luck operating out of the shotgun and set to deliver a quick pass, Ninkovich realizes that, although he has an open rush lane toward the QB, he won’t “get home” in time if he continues into the backfield. Instead, he shadows the QB and, keying off the start of his throwing motion, Ninkovich leaps up to bat down Luck’s pass.
Prior to the snap, Ninkovich and linebacker Dont’a Hightower conversed with each other. It’s possible that Ninkovich was assigned to spy Luck on the play – a scheme element that may surface quite often against Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLIX. But the pre-snap chatter may have also been a quick discussion on confirming a designed line stunt with defensive tackle Alan Branch slanting down toward the right tackle, opening up the A-gap for Ninkovich to exploit.
Spin and Deflate
When Ninkovich wasn’t tasked with jamming tight ends first, he feasted on the one-on-one matchup with Reitz:
Working a wide-angle rush at the outset, Ninkovich uses the outside leverage of the offensive tackle against him by spinning back inside, leaving Reitz in the dust. With Luck’s first read over the middle of the field locked down in coverage, the QB looks for his checkdown option in running back Zurlon Tipton (#37). What he finds, however, is Ninkovich two feet from his face. Luck avoids the sack but takes the hit from Ninkovich as yet another pass falls incomplete.
Off in the near distance, a voice could be heard whispering, “Gotta block #50.”
Sizing Up A Super Bowl Matchup
When the Patriots face the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, the defensive game plan, at least from a pass rush perspective, will likely mirror the approach against Luck and the Colts. Standard four-man and sometimes even three-man rushes that maintain rush lane integrity against a QB with rollout and scrambling ability. While bringing down the QB for a sack remains the ideal way to stop an aerial attack, there are, as demonstrated by Ninkovich, several other ways to disrupt the passing game.
Ninkovich will attempt to duplicate his standout game against the Seahawks in a key matchup between him and a current question mark at the right tackle position. Seattle’s season-long right tackle Justin Britt missed the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers because of a knee injury, and has been a weak spot in pass protection, allowing the second-most QB hurries in the league this season according to Pro Football Focus. His replacement, Alvin Bailey, who allowed a sack early in the Packers game but settled down afterwards, is a 2013 undrafted free agent with limited experience.
Whether a banged-up Britton regains his starting spot or the inexperienced Bailey gets the nod, either matchup should favor the New England defender. Patriots fans will surely be hoping that Reitz will not be the only right tackle to suffer from Ninkovich-filled nightmares this off-season.
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Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.