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Browns defense front and center in debate on NFL clampdown on high hits

Dec 10, 2013 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/ESPN

The Morning Kickoff …

High, low:  When NFL rules-makers gather in March to consider what they have wrought from efforts to make the game safer, they can pretty much run a Browns’ defensive highlight reel.

Just the New England game alone would illustrate the dilemma facing the league.

One of the key plays was a penalty on Browns defensive back Jordan Poyer for hitting Julian Edelman an instant after Edelman grabbed a Tom Brady pass in the end zone. Poyer thought Edelman juggled the ball and slammed his shoulder into Edelman’s chest.

Too high a hit, ruled the officials. “Contact to the head,” coach Rob Chudzinski said one official told him. The 15-yard penalty assessed on the kickoff shortened the field for the Patriots as they recovered an onside kick at the Browns’ 40.

Earlier in the third quarter, safety T.J. Ward was confronted with stopping 265-pound New England tight end Rob Gronkowski after a catch. Ward lowered his shoulder and upended Gronkowski. Ward hit squarely into Gronkowski’s right knee just as he was planting his leg. Gronkowski suffered a torn ACL and MCL as a result. No flag. Perfectly legal hit.

Last year the rules-makers clamped down on hits to the neck and head – not just to protect quarterbacks but also receivers classified as “defenseless,” or unable to see a hit coming. At the time, Ward predicted the result would be defenders aiming low to avoid hefty fines. Ward received one of $25,000 last year on a hit on Dallas receiver Kevin Ogletree.

After the loss to the Patriots, grieving New England media descended on Ward to interrogate him about the hit on Gronkowski. Losing Gronkowski is a devastating blow to the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes.

“When they set the rule, everyone knew what was going to happen,” Ward said. “This can happen if you have those types of situations. It’s pretty much inevitable and they forced our hand with this one.

“I’ve been fined three times, and I don’t like playing for free. If you go ask anybody in this league would they like to play for free? No. Repeat offenders, they’re starting to suspend people for the year. I can’t risk that. I won’t risk that. And, I’ve got to play within the rules, point blank.”

Poyer said, “At the end of the day that's how they want defenders to come in and hit guys. If he had come high there would have been a flag.”

Always the knee: Although recent safety measures have sought to protect the head and neck – cynics say the league merely was covering itself in the midst of potentially explosive concussion litigation – football players forever have feared knee injures the most.

According to ESPN, Gronkowski’s injury was the 40th ACL injury of the NFL season, up from 32 and 25 the previous two seasons. Included in that figure is Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer, whose ACL was torn when his cleat caught the FirstEnergy Stadium grass as Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso toppled him in an Oct. 3 game.

In that same game, Browns safety Tashaun Gipson took out rookie EJ Manuel with a direct shot on Manuel’s knee while the Bills quarterback scrambled for yards. Manuel missed four games with a sprained LCL and hasn’t been the same player since his injury.

Gipson also took out Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley with a high hit that drew a penalty but not a fine on Oct. 20. Finley recently had spinal fusion surgery and his career is in doubt.

About the Browns’ defense: It seems that knocking out star players – legally, without cheap-shotting -- has been one of the characteristics of the Browns’ defense in this weird season.

It is one of three defenses ranked in the top 10 against the rush, the pass and in overall yards (Carolina and Cincinnati are the others), yet it failed again Sunday in Foxborough to preserve a win.

In some categories more important than yards allowed, coordinator Ray Horton’s defense slumps to 26th in third down conversions, 30th in red zone plays inside the 20, and 19th in scoring.

Although much of the blame for another Browns’ losing season falls on the offense, particularly the disruption caused by five quarterback changes, the much-ballyhooed defense has come up short in the last four games. Those are the ones that have defined this season.

No matter how hard the Browns have shown they can hit on a given play, they simply don't make the necessary stops with games on the line to classify themselves as an elite defense.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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