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.
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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."