LeSean McCoy (25) was a key part of Buffalo’s 16-0 win in New England Oct. 2. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)
When the Patriots and Bills met the first time this season, not only was Tom Brady finishing up his four-game suspension, one of the best edge-setters in the Patriots defense was also finishing up his four-game ban to start the season.
Now, Rob Ninkovich is back and the results have been impressive.
Against the best rushing team in the NFL, Ninkovich helped the defense hold the Browns to 27 yards on 22 carries, including Isaiah Crowell to 22 yards on 13 carries.
Against Cincinnati, the Patriots held the Bengals to 120 yards on 32 carries. And last week against Pittsburgh, New England allowed the explosive Le’Veon Bell to 81 yards on 21 carries. Bell had his moments where he jitterbugged but didn’t explode for any huge plays.
Back on Oct. 2, McCoy and the Bills ran 32 times for 134 yards. McCoy had 70 yards on 19 carries. But don’t forget – he caught six passes on six targets for 38 yards and the only touchdown of the game, a seven-yard catch in the right flat.
Then, against the Rams and 49ers, he exploded for 150 and 140 yards respectively. He had just 11 yards on eight carries last week against Miami before coming out with a hamstring injury.
“Obviously, an outstanding, outstanding running back,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Tuesday. “Someone that is extremely quick, fast and versatile. They’re doing a good job of using him in a bunch of different runs and run packages. I would say overall with him this year [he’s] much more of an inside threat in the run game. He’s obviously always been an outside threat. He does a good job with the bounce-out runs or some of the scheme runs where they get him outside on the edge and he can use his speed.”
“He does a real good job with the C-gap [between tackle and tight end] runs, which are a lot of the runs that Buffalo likes to run kind of in their core aspect of the run game. You know, get the ball off tackle and he can hit it really at that 45-degree angle and get quick into the secondary. What he’s been able to do now, what he’s done a real good job of is downhill runs. The downhill runs, I would say out of him now, are much more dangerous and really once he breaks, he’s into the secondary or into the safeties a lot quicker.”
In other words, get him before he gets to the second level or look out.
“Now, he has an opportunity to get open field, kind of uses his skill level in the open field to get guys to miss tackles or get an angle on a defender where he can run away or make him miss and then push it vertical,” Patricia added. “So you definitely see that recently in the last several weeks where he had some of those really explosive runs right through the middle of the line of scrimmage. So those are a little bit of a different kind of issue for us and we’ve got to make sure we can defend along with everything he can do on the perimeter and on the edge. They’ve got a real good scheme and they can get him out into space, get him over where he can just basically outrun the force. He does a good job of that; very talented guy, dangerous, dangerous runner. Obviously, [he] is carrying the work load there for them. [Mike] Gillislee is another guy that has done a great job in the run game for them. He’s a big guy, he can come downhill and he does a good job with those scheme runs; very talented in the backfield.”
How can Ninkovich help?
“We talk about setting the edge from the outside linebacker position,” Patricia said. “Obviously, a lot of the fundamentals and the techniques that we teach – hand placement, pad level, being able to do a good job of recognizing the runs that come to the edge. There are different schemes or different players that can block the edge of the defense. It’s not just one guy. If you have a nose guard for instance, the nose guard is going to have to deal with the center and the guards. He’s pretty locked in to the players right in front of him.
“When you start to get out on the edge of the defense on the perimeter, there’s a lot more people that obviously can come at you from different angles and attack you. So the recognition of the tight end, the tackle, the guard, the fullback, maybe a wide receiver coming in to crack [block] you or to cut you off on the back side. There are a lot of different factors that come into there. First of all, recognition. Having good vision. Being able to play with good fundamentals, pad level, technique, hand placement, power.
“A good combination of all of those skills is what you need on the edge along with the awareness to see what the plays are and recognize different schemes or the different protections in the passing game, all different things that can happen to you as an edge guy. Obviously, Rob [Ninkovich] has a lot of experience for us. He’s been in the position for a while. Experience is a big factor in helping you kind of be able to recognize and decipher those types of plays and scenarios that come up. It’s certainly something that he can go back on in his years of playing in our system and understanding of how we need to play those particular plays and fit it the way we need it to fit.”