Patriots

Eagles and Pats DBs agree: Tough to avoid hits like one that concussed Gronk

Eagles and Pats DBs agree: Tough to avoid hits like one that concussed Gronk

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- When Jacksonville safety Barry Church delivered that massive shot to Rob Gronkowski, the one that knocked the Patriots’ all-world tight end out of the game, the rage amongst Pats fans was real.

Opinions on Church’s fate ranged from immediate ejection, to suspension, to my personal favorite - the Jags safety not being allowed to play again until Gronk was finally cleared to return to a game - any game.

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Given modern day technology, we had amateurs breaking down the point of impact like they actually knew there was intent to injure. Given the emotion of the moment, and the sight of a woozy Gronk heading off to the locker room,  never to return to the AFC Championship Game, it was somewhat understandable. Somewhat. 

There’s no arguing the hit was against the current NFL rules, and Church got what the rule book said he should: a 15-yard penalty. Later, the NFL tacked on a fine of nearly $25,000. 

“25K for making a football play?” asked Eagles safety Corey Graham. “That’s tough.”

Another Eagles safety, Malcolm Jenkins, didn’t want to make light of concussions -- or any injury for that matter -- but did note that, “We’re put in positions all the time in secondary where we gotta protect ourselves, our pockets and the other team. That makes no sense. I think we should start fining quarterbacks for putting guys in situations like that, personally.” He was joking about the last part, sort of.

Devin McCourty has roamed the secondary for eight seasons. As he points out, the Pats “don’t draw a lot of those penalties,” thanks to an emphasis on fundamentals and tackling techniques, but admits that what happened to Church will eventually happen to any defensive back that’s in the game long enough.

“We’ve all had those type of plays,” he said.

Teammate Duron Harmon concurs.

“That’s one of the tricky things about playing in this game,” said the fifth-year pro. “You can’t take it away from what the refs are doing. They’re calling it right. It is illegal using the crown of your head. But it was one of those plays that was bang-bang. He definitely didn’t intend to do it.”

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“That’s been the debate going around all year, right,” asked Graham. “Defensive backs . . . they put us in a tough situations. Honestly, i don’t know what was so bad about that hit. Obviously, you don’t want to see him get hurt. You never want to see anybody get hurt, but you got two options, you hit him high or you hit him down low. I don’t think Gronk wants a guy going in on his ankles, flipping him and messing up his legs and his knees and stuff like that.”

“I didn’t think what [Church] did was wrong,” said another Eagles safety, Rodney McLeod.

“It was unfortunate,” added Jenkins, one of the most well-respected veterans in the league and someone who will probably find himself up against Gronk quite a bit on Sunday. While he appreciates the league’s desire to make football safer, Jenkins notes that “you can’t take the violence out of it,” and that hit was “one of those things . . . in a game, especially a playoff game, where you’re trying to separate a ball from a receiver, some of those things are hard to avoid.”

As Graham said, do you think Gronk or any other receiver wants their knees targeted? We know that’s something that Gronk has been very animated about in the past, and a multitude of players have said they too would prefer a head shot than a torn ACL. The latter, they reason, can cost you a season and as we’ve seen many times, maybe your job. Though the long-term ramifications of concussions are murkier and certainly scarier, few NFL players lose sleep over the big picture, and even the smartest ones, like Jenkins, have hidden brain injuries in the past.

“I got a concussion and nobody really knew,” Graham admitted Wednesday about an unspecified game. “I chose to keep it to myself, which in hindsight probably wasn’t a great idea.”

Jenkins says the league is doing a better job of watching out for it’s players even though it’s not without its flaws, as we’ve seen.

“It protects players from themselves,” he said. “We’re all competitors and especially at this stage, the Super Bowl, wanting to be able to go out and compete. We’ve worked so hard to get to this point, it’d be hard for any player to keep himself out of this game. So I think that’s what the protocol is in place for.”

A protocol, by the way, that Gronk remained through Wednesday’s full padded practice here in Minnesota. The Pats tight end is already on record as saying he’ll play Sunday, and the consensus is the team, which can wait to get him ‘officially’ cleared, is confident about his availability as well. You can also bet that won’t have trepidation about sending him down the seam again. After all, the object is to win the game. Which brings us back to the Church hit again, and notion that defenders can find a strike zone to hit the receiver even as he’s moving.

“The strike zone changes that fast,” said McCourty, snapping his fingers. “You can go in there and have it timed up perfectly but if the pass is low and the guy bends down, now you’re at his head.”

“Unless you get there when he’s still extended and he can’t get his head down, what do you do?” said Graham. “To me, I just don’t think about it much. Just go out there and play football and hope you don’t get caught in a bad situation.”

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We’ll leave the final word to Jenkins, who may just find himself in the same dilemma Church was in less than two weeks ago.

“I think people assume that we’re better athletes than we really are,” Jenkins answered when I asked about the idea of zeroing in on one area in a second, or less. “The speed of the game makes it really really really tough to adjust like that on the fly so often times as you approach a receiver you make up in your mind kind of where that target is and you strike. Often times, you see receivers that duck. They catch the ball and all of a sudden they change their body position and the defenders already picked their strike zone which, when he went to go hit, was probably legal and now all of a sudden the offensive guy changes his body position and you’re in a compromising position.

“Or, like you said, you see guys go like and they’re going to call it a dirty hit. I don’t think people really understand what it feels like as a defender, especially as a DB, to run full speed into guys 240 pounds (or in Gronk’s case 265 or so) and hit him right in his center of gravity. That makes it dangerous to the defender.”

So you must make that decision. Me? Or him? I don’t know anyone who plays this game that would answer the former . . . 

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With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at the position group that received more attention than any other during Super Bowl 52: Cornerback. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED


No single position group experienced as many dips, climbs and dives as Patriots corners did during their rollercoaster season. In September alone, the communication was a mess, Malcolm Butler got benched, Stephon Gilmore got benched, and Eric Rowe suffered a serious groin injury that allowed Gilmore to quickly get his job back. Second-year special teams standout Jonathan Jones might've been the team's best cover man at that juncture. Then, as soon as Gilmore started to find his footing, he was diagnosed with a concussion. The group started to put it together in the second half with solid performances against the Raiders in Mexico City and the Bills in Buffalo. Gilmore was particularly strong as the season wore on, showing the man-to-man cover skills and the knack for getting his hands on footballs that made him one of the highest-paid players at his position last offseason. But in the end, in the Super Bowl, with Butler benched again, the group (outside of Gilmore, who played well against Philly) had too many letdowns in what was arguably the team's worst defensive performance of the season.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gilmore, Rowe, Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz

WHO ISN'T?
Butler, Johnson Bademosi

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?

The Patriots played Rowe in prominent roles in each of the past two Super Bowls and he seems to be first in line to take over No. 2 duties with Butler certainly headed on to a new chapter in his career. Jonathan Jones showed in spurts that he could be an effective slot corner, but he suffered a season-ending injury in the Divisional Round and it's unclear what the Patriots will be expecting from him in 2018. Cyrus Jones is coming off of a torn ACL, and even before his injury, it looked like he may have a hard time cracking the regular rotation. This is one position -  like tackle  - that the Patriots don't want to be left thin. If we had to rank it, the need for another capable body would probably come in at about a 7 out of 10. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There are a handful of relatively big names who will be on the market come March, including Butler. Trumaine Johnson of the Rams figures to be at the top of the class. Vontae Davis of the Colts is 29 and often injured, but in a corner-needy league, he shouldn't have much trouble finding a team. EJ Gains of the Bills could leverage his inside-out versatility to come away with a deal worth almost $10 million per year. Aaron Colvin of the Jaguars, Patrick Robinson of the Eagles, Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams and Leonard Johnson of the Bills give teams in need of slot help some options. Kyle Fuller of the Bears and Morris Claiborne of the Jets are two former first-rounders who've had up-and-down careers but showed last season they have still value on the outside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?

It feels like the best athletes at the high school and college levels are getting smarter. Or their coaches are. Once again, there's a deep group of athletes peppering the incoming draft class at corner, which is, of course, one of the highest-paying positions in football. (Why so many top-tier athletes are still playing running back, on the other hand, is beyond me.) Alabama's hybrid star in the secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick will be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. Same goes for Ohio State's undersized burner Denzel Ward and Iowa's ball-hawking 6-foot-1 cover man Josh Jackson, in all likelihood. At the bottom of the first round, though, players like Auburn's Carlton Davis (who has drawn comparisons to Richard Sherman because of his length and ball skills) and Colorado's Isaiah Oliver (a one-time Pac-12 decathlete with a 6-foot-1 frame) could be available. Would the Patriots want to invest a first-round pick at that spot? If they feel like they have good depth at the position already on the roster but want to take a flier on a mid-round selection, they could hope Louisville's Jaire Alexander (who dealt with injuries in 2017 that will probably hurt his draft stock) lasts into the third round. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


One name that's sort of intriguing on the free-agency market is Davis'. You've heard tales similar players ending up in New England before. He's spent the majority of his career without much of a shot at a title - though his Colts made the AFC Championship Game in the 2014 season. He should be low-cost. He had season-ending groin surgery last year, was released in November and went unclaimed. He'll be 30 before the start of next season, but he may be worth a roll of the dice to help a relatively young Patriots secondary. If he doesn't pan out, no harm done. Hard to envision Belichick and Nick Caserio investing big money into this position with Gilmore on the roster, but maybe they'll deem one of the free-agent slot options worth a shot if he's cost-effective. Otherwise, the Patriots may try to take advantage of a draft that seems - at least right now - as if it's deeper at corner than it is at some other spots on the defensive side of the ball, like on the edge.

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Report: James Harrison could return to Patriots

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Report: James Harrison could return to Patriots

James Harrison was a larger than life figure during his time in Pittsburgh. 

It was as if God molded him to be a member of the Steelers: massive, physical, and an absolute bruiser.

But at the end of the day he is a football player. And athletes in this sport don't particuarly like time on the bench.

Mike Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers organization were reminded of this fact in a very harsh manner.

At the end of the December, Harrison made a late season move to sign with the Patriots. It left his former teammates in Pittsburgh frustrated, and his former fans confused.

But at the end of the day he just wanted to be on the football field again. And that's exactly where Belichick put him.

Harrison had the opportunity to appear in many more situations, and had several sacks at the end of the season.

Now there is a new report from Christopher Price of the Boston Sports Journal that he could re-sign with the Patriots in 2018.

A source close to Price and Harrison said "there's a reasonable chance" that he could be on the roster next year.

He will be playing this upcoming season at age 40, and has previously stated he'd like to play one or two more seasons.

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