Defense carries on without Ninkovich


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On a night when the New England Patriots lost their top pass rusher -- defensive end Rob Ninkovich -- to a second-quarter injury, they brought the opposing quarterback to the ground more than they had in over five years.

The Patriots recorded seven sacks on Sunday's 28-0 shutout of the Miami Dolphins, their most in a game since Dec. 23, 2007, when they also sacked the Dolphins seven times.

Ninkovich powered the Patriots' pass rush through the first 15 games of the season, leading the team with eight sacks and five forced fumbles entering Sunday's contest. In his absence, the Patriots still were able to pressure Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill consistently, with stout coverage in the back end contributing to the performance, according to coach Bill Belichick.

"Guys were covered, the quarterback had to hold the ball, (and that) helped the pass rush," Belichick said. "It was good team defense today. I couldn't single anybody out."

On the stat sheet, undrafted rookie Justin Francis led the charge with three sacks, while defensive end Trevor Scott, who took the bulk of the playing time in Ninkovich's absence, chipped in with a sack of his own. In either case, Belichick wasn't ready to attribute the pressure on Tannehill to just one defensive player.

"I think some of that (the individual stats) is overrated," Belichick said. "There were several times when one guy came in and flushed the quarterback out and somebody else got him."

As for Ninkovich, his condition is unclear following Sunday's game. Injured on a third-down play in the second quarter, Ninkovich slowly walked off the field and went directly to the locker room with what was announced as a hip injury. The Patriots will have a week off, earning a first-round bye before their playoff opener.

"It will be huge," Scott said of possibly losing Ninkovich. "He does everything for us. He's a great player but I don't know what his status is. I haven't talked to him."

The situation could be similar to one last season, when top pass rusher Andre Carter went down with a season-ending quad injury in Week 15. Coincidentally, it was Ninkovich who stepped up in Carter's place, recording three sacks and two forced fumbles over the final two regular-season games and three playoff games. Overall, the Patriots' defense had 18 sacks over that five-game period, culminating in their appearance in Super Bowl XLVI.

If Ninkovich winds up missing the playoffs, as Carter did, the Patriots could be better suited from a depth standpoint to handle the blow. Scott and Francis could be part of the mix, while Jermaine Cunningham, who had a quiet return from a four-game suspension on Sunday, also could factor in.