FOXBORO - When last we saw Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots' defensive end was limping off the football field against the Pittsburgh Steelers and heading to the locker room for medical attention.
Fortunately, a week off has been just what the doctor ordered for Ninkovich. His injured foot has healed sufficiently that he was not listed on the Patriots' injury report as they prepare to meet the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Monday night (8:40 p.m.; Ch. 5 and ESPN).
"It was good to have some rest there," Ninkovich said, "and to get back to focusing on football now, which is the most important part, preparing this week to play a good team. They're playing really well. So it was nice to get back to 100 percent healthy."
The Patriots will be playing a team on a five-game winning streak, and it's a good thing Ninkovich is going to be manning his post. Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton is a dangerous weapon that can run, throw and keep a defense at arm's length with his ability to execute the read-option offense effectively.
"They can hit the edge, they can run inside, and a quarterback that can run and scramble is that dual-threat guy that, when he's back throwing the ball, he can pull it down and just run for the first down, so that's always tough," Ninkovich said. "As a defensive lineman, that's your responsibility to stop the quarterback from scrambling and making those plays. You kind of have to just do it all there and stop the run, and get after the quarterback so that he's under control and you don't run past him and open up a big running lane for him to scramble."
The read-option defense is particularly challenging because it can force defenders to make mistakes in how they pursue the quarterback while trying to keep an eye on the running backs that may become involved from the periphery of the play.
"You just have to be under control and know what your assignment is every time you're in that situation, when they're running that type of read-option," Ninkovich said. "There's always somebody that has to be on the dive and the quarterback pitch, so everybody has to be on the same page there. You've got to be patient and know what your specific job is at that specific moment. So you can't get too over-anxious there to try and hit the quarterback when you have a different responsibility. Just being under control and playing your responsibility at that specific time is how you defeat that specific play."
Newton's ability to make a passing play out of an apparent run, or to keep the run-look going as he prepares to pass, is reminiscent of the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger.
"I don't think he has as much weight as Roethlisberger does," Ninkovich said, "but I think he's athletic, he can run and he makes guys miss. You just have to respect him when he tries to scramble on you or when he's running the ball.
Ninkovich said it's up to the defender to be aware and not over-run the play.
"If you're not in the right place, it's a big play," he said. "Really, you just have to be under control and know where your help is, and everyone rallying to the ball at the same time. That's how you stop that, with good team defense."
The Patriots released recently-signed wide receiver LaQuan Williams Friday, before he had a chance to actually wear the uniform in a game. It's not clear whether the release had anything to do with a lawsuit filed against Williams in connection to an incident outside a strip club in Washington, D.C. Williams' exit may make room for running back Shane Vereen to be reactivated off the designated-for-return injured reserve list.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski told reporters Friday that he was sorry for any offense take by a comment he made at a recent event at a Patriot Place restaurant that were construed as offensive by some Asian-Americans after a video appeared on the gossip site TMZ. He said he was joking with someone he knew and considered a friend, and that he did not mean for his joke to be offensive. Reportedly, Gronkowski's friend has reached out to the Patriots' organization and said he did not take offense to the comments.