Browns safety Ward bracing for Bengals fans
Browns rookie safety T.J. Ward never imagined his vicious early-season hit would trigger a domino effect across the NFL.
''I kind of started it all with the fines,'' Ward said, shrugging.
Ward was fined $15,000 in the days following his devastating hit on Cincinnati rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley in the fourth quarter of Cleveland's Oct. 3 win. The blow, which knocked out and concussed Shipley, became one of the helmet-to-helmet hits most often pointed to by the league when it cracked down on such collisions to protect players.
On Sunday, Ward hopes to speak with Shipley on Sunday before the Browns (5-8) play the Bengals (2-11), who have dropped 10 straight since losing in Cleveland. Ward wants Shipley to know that he isn't a dirty player.
''If I get the opportunity, I might shout at him for a little bit,'' Ward said. ''I might just tell him it wasn't my intent to hurt him or do anything like that, I was just playing the game. I hope he understands that. If not, I don't know, I tried.''
Bengals fans will be tougher to convince.
''I'm expecting the worst, going to their house, especially following what happened,'' he said. ''Especially from the fans. I was getting called dirty player and all this, so I'm pretty sure the fans aren't going to be too happy about seeing me.''
Following the game, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Terrell Owens both called Ward's hit ''a cheap shot.'' The league felt it was excessive, too, slapping a hefty fine on Ward. Two weeks later, following a nasty hit by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison on Browns wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi, the league implemented a tougher policy on helmet contact.
There have been larger fines since the one given to Ward, who may be fortunate he got his out of the way.
''Compared to the $50,000 and $25,000 guys are getting, I guess it's peanuts,'' Ward said. ''But it's still a lot of money, regardless. A lot of money.''
With all their problems, the Bengals aren't looking at getting back at Ward for motivation.
''We've moved on,'' Palmer said Wednesday. ''We want to win because it's a rivalry game, because it's a home game and because they're kind of the team that started this whole slide. We went into that game as a confident team and they knocked us back a step. But our main incentive is it's a rivalry game, the in-state battle.''
Ward led with his right shoulder when he popped Shipley, who had just dropped a potential touchdown pass in the end zone from Palmer when he was flattened. But Ward's helmet also made contact with the side of Shipley's head, drawing a flag and more attention to pro football's inherent violence.
Ward says he's learned his lesson. Ironically, as he met with reporters, he wore a T-shirt that said, ''Big Hit'' on the front, a prize for a hard tackle he made on special teams for Oregon in 2009 against Southern Cal.
''I had quite a few in college,'' he said.
Ward's reputation as a tenacious hitter with the Ducks is the biggest reason the Browns grabbed him in the second round of this year's draft. In a division featuring Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, the Browns wanted to add an impact safety. In Ward, they seem to have one. He leads the Browns with 88 tackles and has two interceptions. Ward, though, has not been pleased with his play recently.
''These last couple weeks, I haven't made some tackles I should have made,'' he said. ''I pride myself on that and I feel I should make every tackle I get the opportunity to. Even though I'm leading the team in tackles, I feel like I should have more.''
Ward has delivered some big hits, but nothing of the seismic intensity of the one on Shipley. He said it's not because he's changed his game or shying away from contact.
''I haven't been put in that situation where I've had the opportunity to take that big of a shot on anyone,'' he said. ''Until that time comes again, that'll tell if I change my play.''
Ward knows he'll be a target for abuse this week. He'll be booed and taunted by Bengals fans, who will see No. 43 as the baddest of the Browns. They haven't forgotten, and Ward understands there's nothing he can do to change their opinion of him.
''Any time you come into an opposing team's stadium, you're going to be a villain,'' he said. ''It's all right. They can call me what they want. I know what kind of player I am, my teammates know what type of player I am. I'm not a dirty player at all.''