BY MARK FARINELLA
SUN CHRONICLE STAFF
FOXBORO - Even nine years into his pro football career, Rob Ninkovich admitted Monday that there's still a lot of little boy in him when this time of year comes around.
"I'm excited. There's that Week One anticipation and we're ready to go here," the veteran pass-rusher said as his Patriots started preparing in earnest for Sunday's regular-season opener.
"It's a great feeling to know that we're working toward a real game that actually counts," Ninkovich said of the opener at Miami (1 p.m.; Ch. 4, 12). "The preseason kind of felt like it was dragging on a little bit, and now I'm happy to be in the regular season."
The preseason does tend to drag, Ninkovich added.
"Usually the fourth game of the preseason takes a while to get to, definitely, so I'm happy to be working here for the first week, for sure," he said. "(The intensity) changes a lot. It does go up. Everything changes. The speed of the game increases and you really have to put in the time now and prepare well for the team we're about to play, and it's a good team."
Ninkovich had another banner season for the Patriots last year, registering a career-best 93 tackles (65 solo) and posting eight sacks for the second straight season. But there are changes afoot; the Patriots are edging toward using a 3-4 alignment as their base defense, which drops Ninkovich and Chandler Jones into pass-rushing outside linebacker roles.
That may put a little more pressure on some of the younger defensive linemen who will now have to adapt to roles specific to the 3-4, but Ninkovich thinks they'll be able to handle it.
"I think they can do a great job," he said. "In the preseason and camp, they've come in and improved, and I think that again, they're just improving on what they were doing last year. I look forward to playing with those guys."
It's been a while since Ninkovich has had to worry about keeping his job; he's been a steady starter since 2010, his second year with the team. But he said he appreciated the emotions many of his younger teammates felt over the past few days as rosters shrank from 75 players to 53.
"I've been in that position before," he said. "It's one thing about this league that you never know what's going to happen. So, again, I understand the anxiety that comes with that day. You just feel for those guys that weren't able to stick around, because there's a lot of good football players right now that don't have a job. You just hope that they get another opportunity and go somewhere else and make the most of it."
Observers from around the NFL have taken note of the Patriots' efforts to shore up the defense this year, and some are going as far as suggesting they might have one of the top five units in the league. But Ninkovich wasn't about to be drawn into ranking his own defense.
"I'm just going to focus in on this game here," he said. "We've just got to play one game at a time and put in the work now, and focus on Miami, they're a good team, and go out there and get the job done. That's what it's all about.
"Last year we had a tough time with some of the things that they do," he added. "They've got some great skill positions, and we've got our work cut out for us this week."
It should be quite warm at Sun Life Stadium for the 1 p.m. opener, but Ninkovich said that's a problem that will be shared equally.
"I don't even think about it," he said. "It's just that I'm going to be out there, and they're going to be in full pads just like I am. I'm just ready to go and I can't even think about it ... just be ready to play."