Duron Harmon

Pats ready for Dolphins’ cheap shots? ‘Prepare for the worst, hope for the best’

Pats ready for Dolphins’ cheap shots? ‘Prepare for the worst, hope for the best’

FOXBORO -- At some point, it's on the players, isn't it?

When dangerous on-the-field incidents occur, whether it was Rob Gronkowski's hit on Tre'Davious White last Sunday or JuJu Smith-Schuster's block on Vontaze Burfict Monday night, the spotlight really can't be pointed at anyone but the players.

MORE:

You could argue officials let a given situation get out of control. You could argue that coaches have a responsibility to teach their players to make better decisions. But when it comes down to it, players have to keep their heads. They have to straddle the line between playing fast, competitive football while trying to abide by a certain set of guidelines to ensure that no one is maimed.

It can be a difficult line to toe. Especially in a game where emotions are flowing, and against a team where there is a history.

For instance, the Patriots know that they have to expect an extra level of physicality from the Dolphins on Monday night.

"It's going to be chippy," Devin McCourty said this week. "Just this time of year everybody is playing for something. You get to after Thanksgiving and you get into December, no one wants to lose anymore. Everyone wants to win games and build and get better. But I think the key is just us keeping our poise, us understanding we're trying to win a game Monday night and just trying to do that and whatever is best for the team and push us forward for us winning the game. I think that just has to be our focus."

The Patriots are aware of the rap sheets on players such as Ndamukong Suh and Kiko Alonso. Some of the hits - hits that came at the echo of the whistle - from their matchup with the Dolphins two weeks ago are still fresh in their minds. That's why, for Bill Belichick's group, an expect-the-worse approach is critical.

"It's definitely one of those games where you have to understand it's one of those 'prepare for the worst, hope for the best' kind of things," said defensive tackle Adam Butler. "You just have to know that something's going to happen. They have several guys on that team that have a history of doing stuff after the whistle, or doing stuff during the echo of the whistle and being on the fence of what's ethical and what's not during a game.

"That's definitely...This will be one of those games where you have to say something's bound to happen. Something's going to happen. We just gotta be prepared to respond the right way."

Especially when responding the wrong way can hurt the team.

"The No. 1 thing that Coach Belichick talks about all the time is having fewer penalties than the other team," Butler added. "I understand that people sometimes do messed-up things. They'll hit you in the throat or hit you in the back of the head. Something messed up like that. But you just gotta grab yourself. Just control yourself."

Self-control may mean different things to different people, especially depending on a player's position on the field. Linemen may be able to get away with something at the bottom of a pile that isn't caught on camera or seen by an official. But if a defensive back lays a questionable hit on a receiver -- particularly on a Monday night -- the country sees it instantaneously.

"You're going out there, you're playing football," said LaAdrian Waddle. "You're hitting the crap out of people. That's just what it is. It's a violent sport. You're in that mode, you gotta move guys. Whatever your job is. It's physical. It's violent. You just gotta use that physicality and that violent nature in a way that's beneficial, that's productive . . .

"You don't want to do anything to hurt the team. You don't want to do anything that can get you suspended or fined. They're fining everybody for everything nowadays. It's stuff like that. You gotta play the game, man. You gotta play the game."

Duron Harmon is a captain with a spotless reputation. From his spot at free safety, he's been able to largely avoid borderline hits over the course of his career. But he explained on Thursday that it's more difficult than it looks when it comes to taking care of vulnerable opponents.

"That's always hard. I mean this is a physical game," he said. "I mean every hit is a quick second. It's hard to decipher if I'm hitting them in the helmet or I'm hitting them in the chest. These guys duck at times. It's just all a part of the game.

"Some collisions you're going to hit the head. You don't want to. You're not trying to but it's just the way the game is. It's so fast-paced and things happen in the blink of an eye. It's hard. All you can do is just try. I mean the rules are going to be the rules, and the rules are to make this game as safe as possible. So, I completely understand that but certain things are just unavoidable."

Harmon added: "You've just got to just try to play the game the right way but fast at the same time, and know that sometimes some collisions are just going to happen. It's just the way the game is. It's football. We all signed up for that. We all know that but at the end of the day it's football."

The sentiment was similar to one of several expressed by Steelers safety Mike Mitchell when he ranted to reporters in Pittsburgh earlier this week.

What Mitchell left out of his comments, though, was an acknowledgment that there is some responsibility on players to do the right thing - difficult as that may be at times.

"There's a line you don't cross," Waddle explained. "I don't think that line's spelled out for you. But you kind of know what things are frowned upon and what things are just part of the game. There are a lot of variables that go into that. A whole lot. Like I said, some stuff is tip-toeing that line. It's kind of a case by case deal. That's how I look at it. Some of that you just chalk it up to football."

What if the equation isn't really as complicated as it seems? What if the line is clear?

If your sole focus is on helping your team win a game, a lot of the issues that plagued the Steelers-Bengals game Monday night can be avoided.

Questionable hits lead to penalties. Penalties lead to yardage for the other team. Yardage leads to points. Points decide games.

Take the morality out of it. Take the long-term health concerns out of it. Look closely enough, and keeping emotions in check can help decide a game.

That alone, McCourty explained, could help players avoid destroying each other. It's an approach the Patriots will take with them in what's sure to be a physical contest in Miami.

"Things happen out there," McCourty said. "It is what it is. But I think as long as we keep the goal of us trying to win and doing what our coaches always harp on us - ‘Do what's best for the team’ - it usually works out well."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Harmon: 'I wouldn't call Gronk a dirty player'

patriots_rob_gronkowski_112017.jpg

Harmon: 'I wouldn't call Gronk a dirty player'

FOXBORO -- Duron Harmon knows Rob Gronkowski. He knows what Gronkowski did to Tre'Davious White last weekend was wrong. But he also says he knows that Gronkowski isn't a dirty player.

That's how White described Gronkowski while meeting with Bills reporters on Thursday. 

"It is what it is," White said. "He did what he wanted to do. He is what he did. That's all I've got to say about it."

He is what he did. 

In White's mind, Gronkowski's dirty act makes him a dirty player. It was an assessment Harmon -- like Gronkowski, a Patriots captain -- didn't agree with.

MORE ON GRONK

"Tough to comment on that because all of this stuff is just bad," Harmon said. "But I've known Gronk for five years now. Gronk is not only a tremendous football player but a tremendous teammate. Will do anything for you. Always has a smile on his face. Always doing the right thing. At that moment, didn't happen. But I wouldn't call Gronk a dirty player. Just a bad situation."

Harmon clearly didn't agree with Gronkowski's late hit. And he didn't make excuses for his teammate. But his point was that one instance should not define Gronkowski's reputation.

"Something out of character. Something he doesn't do at all, except that time," Harmon said. "All you can do is learn from it . . . Learn from it, move forward, and when he gets his opportunity to play again, play well."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Belichick getting the most out of his veteran safeties

Belichick getting the most out of his veteran safeties

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. - Bill Belichick’s never been shy about getting the players who play the best on the field as much as possible. 

So, when he looked at a crowded secondary this summer, the Patriots’ coach didn’t view every spot as a defined position. Instead, he analyzed the skill set of his players and decided that the Pats needed their top three safeties - Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Pat Chung - on the field as much as possible. Just past the midway point of the season, Belichick and his defensive coaching staff have managed to do that quite a bit.

MORE PATRIOTS

McCourty missed one defensive snap all season, the last play of the opener (590). Harmon has often times found himself as that single-high safety (479) while - as illustrated earlier - Chung has played 83 percent of the snaps, although about a third of those designated as a cornerback (494 total/333 as safety). There are only two other teams in the NFL that play three safeties as often as the Patriots: the Chiefs (Ron Parker, Daniel Sorensen and Eric Murray) and Broncos (Justin Simmons, Darian Stewart and Will Parks). 

When I asked Belichick about all that the responsibilities he puts on that safety trio, the coach wouldn’t single out just those three. He also highlighted veterans Nate Ebner and Jordan Richards.

“That’s good group really with Pat, Devin, Duron, Jordan, Nate gives us a lot in the kicking game. That’s five guys that all help us in a lot of different ways…they all are pretty versatile,” said Belichick. 

Versatility is a critical element to the Patriots being able to put those players on the field and keep them there, no matter what the opposition throws New England’s way.

“You see Jordan play strong safety, you see Jordan come in in multiple defensive back sets. You see Chung play a corner type of role sometimes. I play a corner type of role. I  think it allows us to say ‘if they come out in this personnel, we’ll be ok’” said Devin McCourty. “We’ll just match up these guys in whatever different role in the defense and it’ll work.”

Of course, sometimes that’s easier said than done when you consider what personnel the opposing team can employ. In the opener against Kansas City, the Pats tried and failed to match up with an explosive grouping that including Tyreek Hill and DeAnthony Thomas, wide receivers who can line up in the backfield and take a handoff as well. 

The opponent Sunday, Oakland, doesn’t have those kinds of pieces, but the Raiders still have players in place that can keep defensive coordinators up at night. The suspicion here though is that Matt Patricia sleeps better than most, in part because of his secondary.

“A team like Oakland will come in what we call ‘oh 1’ personnel where they have four receivers and [tight end Jared] Cook on the field, which is kind of like a fifth receiver,” noted McCourty. “We can easily stay in different groups and say ‘all right, this is how we want to match that.’ Where if we didn’t have that versatility we’d have to start to run corners on and then they keep [Marshawn] Lynch on the field in place of Cook and run the ball. There’s so many different things that the offense can do to mismatch personnel. Having the versatility and players who understand different roles allows players to stay calm and match up.”

There’s also an unseen element to what this safety group brings to the field every week. That’s their experience, not just in the NFL, but together. There’s comfort in knowing the guy next to you has seen the same things you have and can go through their mental Rolodex to recall and adjust to personnel groupings and formation changes that maybe weren’t prepared for during the week (yes, even with Belichick as the coach that happens).

“I’ve been playing with Pat and Dev - all of us being together - this has been four years and you don’t catch that too often, especially three safeties,” said Harmon. “I just think us being able to be in a whole bunch of different positions, being able to learn from each other and playing together has allowed us to even been more versatile with each other and be able to run more things, have a better feel for the defense and put ourselves in maybe different positions that you wouldn’t put anyone else in.”

“We don’t have many groups like us that have been together for the last four or five years,” said McCourty. “We don’t always break things down as the strong safety, free safety, the money back, like a lot of things we did, it’s just a position, a spot on the field. I think we all understand that all three of us or all four of us on the field at any time can play at any of those positions. I think that allows us to say, ‘Remember last time we did this, in this game, you were here and you were there’ but this time because this is what they like you go here and I’ll go there. This that allows us to understand what we do defensively but also match it to whatever the offense does. Obviously, that’s what the coaches want to do. When the players can do that, it always helps.”

Belichick knows this and it’s pretty clear this trait - the ability to adjust on the fly - is something he appreciates a great deal. That’s why over the past five games, you haven’t noticed nearly as much movement and - let’s face it - confusion as there was in that first month. The players have shared history to fall back on and it’s smoothed out the communication and led to a much higher level of play.

“We can definitely go back to things that maybe we haven’t done in a while, talk about how we used this against Tampa or we used this against Buffalo or somebody and there’s good recall and good application of it,” Belichick said. “Yeah, there’s times where that definitely helps. Same thing on the offense, with guys like Tom [Brady], James White, Rob [Gronkowski], Danny [Amendola]  - guys that have done things together for multiple years. You got a situation that’s similar to a situation you had awhile back, you can go back and refer to that. You’re not going to be able to do that with Deatrich Wise or [Jacob] Hollister. They just haven’t had that kind of experience. But with experienced players, sure, that comes up from time to time. That’s a good reference.”

So, don’t be surprised Sunday in Mexico City if you see Harmon shaded over the top of Amari Cooper, or McCourty in the box providing an extra run fit, or Chung playing slot corner or linebacker. It’s old hat for a group that is asked to do more and routinely responds well to those challenges. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE