Patriots

After two days of talking, Broncos take out the trash

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After two days of talking, Broncos take out the trash

DENVER -- Sensitivity is at an all-time high around New England this week. It started with Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall opining that the reason Rob Gronkowski gets open so often is that he pushes off. Whining? Or planting a seed in the heads of the officiating crew for Sunday’s AFC title game in Denver?

Defensive lineman Antonio Smith then did a a radio interview and was asked if Tom Brady was a crybaby. Smith never called Brady a crybaby. The word "crybaby" never came out of his mouth. But he did agree that Brady complains to the officials regularly. Nerves that will help fuel Brady’s fire Sunday? Or, again, a memo to the officials?

But what really got everyone who bleeds Pats colors into a tizzy was Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. laughingly saying that the best way to tackle Rob Gronkowski is to aim for the knees. Never mind that at least two of Gronk’s teammates have publicly said that very thing this season when asked about it following the All-Everything tight end’s injury in Denver back in Week 12. But yeah, with a Super Bowl berth on the line, and the knowledge that the Pats playoff fortunes have become largely dependent on Gronkowski over the years, them’s fighting words. It prompted a suspect tweet from Gronk himself, one that was very much out of character from a Bill Belichick-coached team. 

The Broncos had both Monday and Tuesday off, so head coach Gary Kubiak didn’t have a chance to remind his team to zip it. When asked about his thoughts on the trash-talking Wednesday, Kubiak tried to steer clear.

“I really don’t get into that stuff,” he said. “We preach to our team throughout the course of the season consistently, not just now, the importance of staying focused on your job and what you have to do. I think our guys have done a good job with that. I think they’ve stayed focused on what our team needs to do to be successful and their job. This week is no different. Hopefully, I’m preaching the same thing all the time.”

But several Broncos admitted Kubiak brought the topic up in meetings Wednesday, and all of a sudden, Denver’s players shied away from the topic.

“I’m not a big talker,” said Von Miller to a room that quickly filled with laughter, “I haven’t been on social media so I haven’t seen any of the stuff that you are talking about. I’m just trying to catch what you’re telling me. We are going to try to tackle. We have to tackle. We have to tackle Rob well. He’s very good at breaking tackles, very good at yards after contact so we are going to have to be excellent right there to have a chance to win the game.”

“It doesn’t change the game at all,” noted veteran tight end Vernon Davis. “Everyone’s talking. You can say this, you can say that. But at the end of the day, actions speak louder than words. For us, it’s just about going out there, taking it one play at a time and trying to win a game.”

As for the best way to bring down the behemoth that is Gronkowski, Denver’s defenders said there are no rules.

“Whatever way you can get him down. That’s the best way,” safety T.J. Ward said. “I don’t pre-plan how I tackle someone. Whatever way he comes to me is the way I’m going to try to get him down.”

“I don’t think it’s ever been taught before to tackle a guy who is 6-8, 300 pounds,” Miller said. “It’s never really been taught. ‘You have to tackle this guy.’ It’s never really been broken down. The thing that we have to do well is just get him on the ground and we have to tackle well. It’s very, very vague, but we just have to tackle well. We have to be extremely good tacklers come Sunday.”

Even defensive linemen Sylvester Williams, who tips the scales at well over 300 pounds, weighed in on the subject when asked. 

“Obviously, I play defensive line, so I can only tell you from my point of view. Obviously, if I get a chance to hit him, I am just going to tackle him whatever way to bring him down. I feel like the DBs probably feel the same way.”

If the Broncos don’t find a way to bring Gronk down, especially on the first crack, they risk getting gashed.

“We need to tackle well. That’s the most important thing,” emphasized Kubiak. “This is a team much like the one that we just played last week {Pittsburgh}. They can throw a 4-or 5-yard pass and, if you don’t tackle well -- with their players being as physical as [they are] and having the ability that they have -- if we don’t tackle well, a lot of small plays can turn into big plays. It’s been important for us and it will be extremely important this week, as well.”

Kubiak is spot on. I’d argue his players are as well, and until they institute a strike zone of sorts when it comes to receivers, this is a topic that will continue to get nerves jangled in New England and be a topic of conversation into the offseason as well. But for now, Gronkowski’s head will need to be on a swivel, like it or not.

BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Patriots-Steelers tale of the tape

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BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Patriots-Steelers tale of the tape

0:41 - The BST crew breaks down the Celtics’ 107-95 loss to the Utah Jazz. A. Sherrod Blakely joins Tom Giles from the TD Garden and Michael Holley and Kayce Smith analyze Gordon Hayward’s pregame comments about his recovery and return.

8:07 - Do Bill Belichick and the Patriots attempt to shut down Le'Veon Bell or Antonio Brown this weekend against the Steelers? Tom Giles and Michael Holley discuss and Phil Perry and Kayce Smith break down the matchup with this week’s tale of the tape.

14:36 - The Red Sox watched another slugger get scooped up, as the Philadelphia Phillies signed Carlos Santana. Michael Holley, Kayce Smith and Tom Giles discuss Boston’s interest in still-available J.D. Martinez and how much he could cost the club.

Injury report: Branch out, 10 Patriots questionable

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Injury report: Branch out, 10 Patriots questionable

The Patriots final injury report before their showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday includes 10 players listed as questionable and defensive lineman Alan Branch ruled out.

Branch, who hurt his knee in the Monday night loss to the Dolphins, missed three days of practice this week. Among the questionable are linebacker Kyle Van Noy and defensive lineman Trey Flowers, who didn't play against Miami. Tom Brady (Achilles), Brandon Cooks (hand) and Malcolm Butler (ankle) have been removed from the injury report. 

Cornerback Joe Haden (fibula) and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (hamstring) among the Steelers listed as questionable. The full injury report: