Welker: Toughness, smarts make up for size

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Welker: Toughness, smarts make up for size

FOXBORO -- Wes Welker looked like hell. He looked like a guy who, over the course of a five-month football season, caught 118 passes and took just as many hits.

After Thursday's practice he walked to a podium for his media-access period wearing flip flops and sporting a black eye that had already turned various shades of purple, yellow and red. He didn't know exactly how he earned that particular badge of courage, just that it was a result of one of the many shots he absorbed during last week's Divisional Round win over the Texans, 41-28.

As the Patriots prepare for the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, there has been talk of toughness, usually in reference to the Ravens. Their veteran linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis returned from a torn triceps to play in this year's playoffs. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs returned from a torn achilles this season less than a year after shredding it. As a team, the Ravens like to hit hard. Born out of the mold of the traditionally-rugged AFC North, they're bonafide tough.

But an argument could be made that the toughest individual player on the field Sunday will be New England's 5-foot-9, 190-pound slot receiver. Welker has made a career over the middle of the field, braving hits from linebackers and safeties. And since punt returner Julian Edelman was lost for the season to injury, Welker has taken that job and put himself in position to take a few more crunching blows every game.

The baffling question is not why, but how? How has Welker, at his size, remained so consistent -- earlier this year he became the first ever receiver to notch 100 receptions in five straight seasons -- in a role that is so punishing?

"I think the two key things are being tough and being smart," Welker said. "Being able to take those hits and do all those things, and at the same time, being smart and understanding what the defense is doing and being able to attack it in a certain way where you can maybe make those windows just a little bit bigger where you're not taking those hits and things like that. I would attribute being tough and being smart, and really understanding the game."

Welker is a master of deflecting head-on shots. As a punt returner, it's a skill that stands out. Rarely does he take a heavy hit as he starts up field with no momentum while opponents come barreling down on him at full speed. A subtle dip of his shoulder. A twist of just a few degrees. Sometimes that's all it takes. That's the difference between staying on the field for that subsequent offensive series and some other, more painful result.

His team is concerned about him. They need him, especially now with tight end Rob Gronkowski -- the team's much larger middle-of-the-field target -- sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs with a broken arm.

Welker said on Thursday that he's spoken with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady about how to avoid big hits.

"It's a long season," Welker said. "Every little hit, it adds up. There are times where you gotta know when the ride's over and get down and live to see another day and things like that. So we've discussed it before, but at the same time, when you need a first down or whatever, you gotta do what you gotta do."

That's the rub. Welker has become one of the NFL's best receivers because of his toughness. Coming out of high school, he was too small for Division 1 football. He went on to star at the Division 1 program at Texas Tech. Then he was too small for the NFL. Now he's the most reliable and productive option in one of the most prolific offenses of all time.

He's hard-wired to try. Knowing when the ride is over isn't his strong suit. But he knows enough to pick his spots.

"You learn," he said with a smile.

But even when Welker chooses wrong, he pops back up. Playing tough is who he is. He knows it's not achieved by talking or trying to intimidate, which the Ravens have been known to do at times here at Gillette Stadium. It's something else.

"There's guys that talk trash," Welker said. "There's guys that try to hit you and do all these different things, but I feel like I've been around long enough to know a tough guy when I see one."

Friday, Dec. 9: John Scott calls it quits

Friday, Dec. 9: John Scott calls it quits

Here are all the links from around the hockey world and what I’m reading while digging the Spider-Man trailer that dropped last night. 

*John Scott has finally called it a day and announced his retirement, and apparently there’s a book of his memoirs also coming out too. I’m predicting it’s not headed for the New York Times best seller list. 

*Winter Olympics participation and the CBA negotiations for the NHL are starting to merge into giant issue.  

*Connor McDavid calls the Flyers' Brandon Manning classless for telling him on the ice that he purposefully tried to hurt him last season. Some players might also take issue with McDavid making public what another player said to him on the ice. That’s kind of a no-no for most hockey players and breaks an unwritten rule that McDavid might think he’s above given his star status. This whole thing isn’t a good look for anybody. 

*Kevin Stevens pleads guilty to federal drug charges in what’s become a pretty sad situation for the former NHL star. 

*New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is beginning to raise questions with his play, and his massive price tag. 

*Youngsters Zach Weresnki and Dylan Larkin took similar paths to the NHL, and are both considered part of the talented young generation full of hockey stars. 

*PHT writer Joey Alfieri has Carey Price taking a nutty on Kyle Palmieri after the player crashed into his crease last night. Price is being celebrated for sticking up for himself, but if another goalie did that to a Habs player at the Bell Centre, there would already be a warrant out for his arrest. Play it both ways, Montreal!  

*For something completely different: here’s the aforementioned new Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer that looks pretty darn good. 

 

Two more Pastrnak goals pull him into tie for NHL lead with Crosby

Two more Pastrnak goals pull him into tie for NHL lead with Crosby

BOSTON – While the loss to the Avalanche on Thursday night was a monumental dud, it put another dazzling display on the hockey resume of David Pastrnak. 

The 20-year-old star right winger scored two more goals in the 4-2 loss at TD Garden and nearly brought the Bruins back into the game by himself before another defensive breakdown at the end of the second period doomed them. 

Instead, Pastrnak had to settle with being the proud owner of 18 goals scored in 23 games that places him in a tie with NHL superstar Sidney Crosby for the NHL lead in goals. 

The goals also showed his wide range of lethal offensive skills. On the first score, he just broke away from the Avalanche defense and managed to bury a second-effort breakaway chance after a nice Tim Schaller stretch pass off the boards. The second goal was a straight one-timer bomb from the high slot off a slick setup pass from Brad Marchand in the corner, and it had the Bruins right back into the mix after a dreadful first period. 

It wasn’t enough when the B’s defense faltered again toward the end of the second period, but it was enough for everybody to be singing Pastrnak’s praises once again following the loss. 

“He’s a game changer. The momentum is going the other way, and he has the ability to break away on any given shift and score a big goal for us. He did that tonight,” said Torey Krug. “We can’t just keep relying on the same guys to score goals. We’ve got to come up with secondary offense, and I know every other guy wants to do that. 

“Now it’s about showing that on the ice and making sure we’re doing the work and getting better and proving to ourselves. But Pasta [David Pastrnak] has been great for us so far, and we’re obviously lucky to have him.”

The 18 goals barely two months into the season are not too shabby for a kid, in his third NHL season, who just now coming into his own. He’s nearly halfway to 40 before Christmas. For Pastrnak, however, it’s about the team result and he wasn’t overly satisfied with his two goals in a losing effort. 

“I’ve said before the season that our goal is to make the playoffs and to have that experience and have the chance to win the Stanley Cup. I’m still focusing on that,” said Pastrnak, who has yet to experience the Stanley Cup playoffs in his two-plus seasons with the Black and Gold. “We have zero points from tonight’s game and we have to move on. I think our game gets better in the second and third periods, you know, and we have to regroup and get ready for Saturday’s game.”

The Bruins will undoubtedly regroup and once again count on another Pastrnak offensive explosion to help lead the way in what’s become a truly spectacular season for the youngster.