FOXBORO -- When Browns defensive back TJ Ward saw Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski run freely down the middle of the field and haul in a Tom Brady pass, he made a decision. Ward knew he measured up at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds. He knew Gronk (6-6, 265) was much bigger.
Ward was going to go low.
"I closed on the pass, it was a decision I made just to make a tackle on a big man," Ward said. "Unfortunately he got hurt, but if I were to hit him up high, there's a chance I would've got fined . . . I'm just being safe."
Gronkowski was carted off the field moments later with what appeared to be a serious leg injury. He did not return.
Ward explained that with the NFL rules for illegal hits being what they are, defensive backs like himself are left with little choice: A hit up high could result in a personal foul penalty and a hefty fine; a hit down low may be dangerous, but it doesn't carry the same kinds of risks.
Having already been fined three times in his career, Ward explained he makes a conscious effort to avoid hits that will result in more money being taken out of his pocket.
"I've been fined three times," he said. "And I don't like playing for free. You can ask anybody in this league if they like playing for free. No. Repeat offenders, they starting to suspend people for the year. I can't risk that. I won't risk that. I gotta play within the rules. Point blank."
Ward went on about the role that rules play in dictating where defenders target their hits.
"It's kinda being caught between a rock and a hard place," he added. "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. Already he has that height. It just makes it difficult. I made a tackle. Unfortunately he got hurt. But if he would've got up, there would've been no discussion about this right now."
Browns cornerback Joe Haden agreed with his teammate.
"It's a focus on to tackle low because you don't want to get fined," Haden said. "You playing within the rules. I feel so bad that [Gronkowski] went down like that, but TJ was doing everything he had to do to play within the rules. If you're catching the ball like that and he goes up top, there's going to be a fine. They're going to take away a lot of money and everything like that -- throw a flag on the play. But that's the way they want us to do it now. I feel so bad for Gronkowski. At the same time TJ's doing what he has to do. Playing within the rules, and that's just what's going to happen."
Browns corner Jordan Poyer was emphatic in his view: The NFL wants defenders to make hits like the one Ward made on Gronkowski.
"That's what they want us to do," said Poyer. "That's what they preach us to do. That's what they tell us to do. I feel like it's a fair hit. My heart and my prayers go out to Gronk 'cause, I mean, it was nasty. But at the end of the day, that's how they want defenders to come in and hit."
Poyer was whistled for a personal foul penalty in the fourth quarter when he hit Julian Edelman up high on Edelman's touchdown reception
"If [Ward] had come high, there would've been a flag," Poyer said. "If he went low, I don't know the outcome of what happened to Gronk, but it looked bad. That's just the nature of the beast of the game."
Ward said he did not know that Gronkowski was injured until well after the play. He celebrated with teammates thinking he had jarred the ball loose until Browns defensive back Tashaun Gipson pointed out that Gronkowski remained on the turf.
Ward approached Gronkowski to wish him well before Gronkowski was carted off the field with Patriots team doctor Thomas Gill.
"My intention is to never hurt anyone," Ward explained. "That's not what this game is about, that's not how I play. I hate to see guys go down with any type of injury. I just wanted him to know -- whether he accepted it or not -- it wasn't an intentional hit to injure him. But we have to play this game, we have to play it the way that they force us to. Unfortunately it occurred in an injury for him."
Ward said after the game that he prayed for Gronkowski when he saw that he had injured the big tight end. He knew that Brady's biggest weapon had missed time this season because of injury -- the first five weeks of the regular season with forearm and back ailments -- and he conveyed remorse at the possibility that Gronkowski may miss even more time.
"I honestly prayed for him because it looked bad the way they were over there," he said. "I know he's coming off an injury that he's been out for a while. It's not a good thing."
Ward did not repeat what, if anything, Gronkowski said to him when Ward approached the Patriots cart.
"He's in a tough spot," Ward said of Gronkowski. "I wouldn't expect him to be accepting, but I had to send that gesture regardless. I hope he heals right. I don't know what happened but I hope everything is OK with him and he has a good recovery. But I gotta play football, man. I gotta play football."
Why didn't Ward hit Gronkowski somewhere between his head and his knee? Aiming for a shot to the chest is still too high, Ward said he has learned. He said he thought he hit Gronkowski's upper leg at the time.
"If you do hit him in his chest and he decides to hunch down or flinch or lower his head," Ward said, "then I could get the chance of being fined."
If the rules protecting defenseless receivers and shots to the head had not been instilled as they are, Ward said, there is a chance he may have attempted a different type of tackle.
"When they set the rule, everyone knew what was going to happen," Ward said. "This can happen if you have those type of situations. It's pretty much inevitable. They forced our hand with this one."