Rob Gronkowski's knee injury becomes point of hit controversy

The hit that caused New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to suffer a knee injury Sunday became a flashpoint for the issue of hitting players' legs in the NFL. Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward told that the NFL rules forced him to hit low.

"My intention is never to hurt anyone," Ward said. "That's not what this game is about. That's not how I play. I hate to see guys go down with any kind of injury. I just wanted him to know, whether he accepted it or not, it wasn't an intentional hit. We have to play this game. We have to play the way that they force us to."

Which means avoid a high hit. Browns defensive back Jordan Poyer can vouch for that fact. His hit to the shoulder of Julian Edelman after a late touchdown was flagged as unnecessary on a defenseless receiver. The resulting penalty helped New England's field position when the Patriots recovered the onside kick.

Had Ward made a similar kind of hit, he'd have risked being fined, especially if Gronkowski had ducked or flinched.

"It's kind of being caught between a rock and a hard place," he said. "It's a decision you have to make, but you have to follow the rules at the same time. Gronk's a big dude. He's not small by any means, so already he has that height. It just makes it difficult. I made a tackle. Unfortunately he got hurt. If he would have got up, there would have been no discussion about this right now."

The Providence Journal wrote that the NFL's emphasis on banning headshots has encouraged defenders to target knees, and that didn't make several members of the Patriots very happy.

Bill Belichick seemed to stare down Ward later in the game and then refused to answer a specific question on the propriety of the hit after the game. Wide receiver Julian Edelman likewise offered no comment when asked if he was seeing more defenders target his knees since concussions became an area of emphasis.

(It's worth noting that officials threw a flag for unnecessary roughness when Poyer hit Edelman in the head in the back of the end zone late in the fourth quarter.)

"They make the rules, and you try to play within them," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "You can't get hit in the head, so... these guys, they're lowering their target area."

Reserve tight end Matthew Mulligan didn't have the hit on Gronkowski in mind specifically when he tried to jump up and over Cleveland defensive back Joe Haden in the fourth quarter. Mulligan expected the Browns to target his lower half even before he saw Gronkowski go down.

"In my whole career, I've never, ever done that," he said. "I've just plowed guys over. But all week long, we've been watching film, and I thought they'd go low, go low, go low. ... With myself, being 275 pounds, most guys are going to go low. That's the way it's always been."

That follows along the lines of a Q&A that NFL Evolution did with St. Louis Rams team physician Dr. Matthew Matava, who said last week that players have talked to him about the need to hit low.

The players are telling us, "We can't hit each other in the head, so guys are going for the knees to make a tackle." There's a concern sort of brewing that there may be an increased number of injuries to the knee. Players are concerned about hitting too high, now they're hitting lower. Well, in the process you might have a ligament injury and that's happened a couple of times this year. Obviously the players have said to us that they would rather be hit in the head than in the knees. They sort of will take their chances with a concussion, or so they say, but with a knee injury, that could end their career. That's an interesting problem that's starting to develop that the league has started to look at. How do you manage the fact that players have to be fined or penalized if there's a blow to the head, but you can't also go too low and take out their knee as well because it limits their ability to play?

-- Bill Bradley, contributing editor