FOXBOROUGH — Rob Gronkowski had barely taken three strides after hauling in a seam pass from Tom Brady, but in that short amount of time Browns safety TJ Ward had to think about exactly how he was going to take Gronkowski down.
Willingly running into a 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound truck was an issue.
"Gronk's a big dude," Ward said. "He's not small by any means."
Ward knew that with the NFL's rules prohibiting leading with the helmet and targeting around the shoulders, hitting Gronkowski high wasn't an option.
So the only option he could see was going low.
"If I would've hit him up high, there's a chance I was going to get a fine," Ward said.
Instead, Ward hit Gronkowski near the knees, chopped him down at the Cleveland 32-yard line, and celebrated his play.
Then his teammate, Tashaun Gipson, got his attention. "Gip was like, 'Hey, man, he's down,'" Ward said.
Gronkowski had to be carted off the field, unable to put any pressure on his right leg. And after the Patriots stunned the Browns with a come-from-behind 27-26 win, their most pressing concern was the status of their tight end for the remainder of the season.
Reports surfaced after the game that he had torn his ACL.
For Ward, the line between a legal hit and a dangerous hit has been blurred by the new rules. "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.
"When they set the rule, everyone knew what was going to happen. This can happen if you have those types of situations. It's pretty much inevitable, and they forced our hand with this one."
Ward was concerned enough to walk over to Gronkowski and wish him well as he was being wheeled off.
"I honestly prayed for him," Ward said. "Because it looked bad for him the way they were over there."
If Gronkowski wasn't receptive to his olive branch after missing the first six weeks of the season while recovering from a broken arm, only to sustain another possible season-ending injury, Ward would understand. "He's in a tough spot," Ward said. "I wouldn't expect him to be accepting, but I had to send that gesture regardless. I hope he heals right.
"But I've got to play football, man. I've got to play football."
The hit didn't draw a penalty flag, and as Browns coach Rob Chudzinski saw it, Ward did the only thing he could to bring Gronkowski down. "He was tackling him low and just trying to get him on the ground," Chudzinski said. "I don't think there was anything to that.
"Of course, you hate to see any player ever injured. Gronkowski's a great player. I don't know about the severity of the injury at all, but I hope he's back."
Ward knows how stern the league is about illegal hits. He was fined $15,000 in 2010 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on then-Bengals receiver Jordan Shipley.
Last year, he was docked $25,000 for leading with his shoulder while hitting Cowboys receiver Kevin Ogletree.
"I don't like playing for free," Ward said. "You ask anybody in this league, would they like playing for free? No."
His teammates agreed that the low tackle was a play Ward had to make.
"That is what they tell us to do. I feel like it was a fair hit," said fellow defensive back Jordan Poyer, who himself was whistled for unnecessary roughness at the end of Julian Edelman's 2-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter. "My heart and prayers go out to Gronk because it was a nasty hit. At the end of the day, that is the way they want the defenders to come in and hit. . . . It's the nature of the beast of the game."
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.