ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Nothing, or no one, opens the Patriots offense like tight end Rob Gronkowski.
During the Patriots' four-game October winning streak, Gronkowski averaged 6.75 receptions, 102.75 yards and 1.0 touchdowns per game, following a September in which New England went 2-2 and his averages were 3.25 receptions, 36.75 yards and 0.75 touchdowns per game.
Last week against Chicago, Gronkowski was virtually impossible to cover, with 149 yards and three touchdowns on nine receptions. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell capitalized off the attention given to Gronkowski, adding a touchdown and 124 yards on 11 receptions.
It was the Patriots' offense as it was intended to be, and as has been the case in recent years, it happened because the 265-pound tight end presents matchup problems unlike any other. Heavier than most defensive ends, faster than most linebacker and even some safeties, his receptions from Tom Brady make the offense hum.
"He can run like a wild dog, man," said cornerback Aqib Talib, a teammate of Gronkowski's in 2012 and 2013. "Great hands, great catch radius. He's one of the top tight ends in the league.
And if the Broncos are to get pressure on that great quarterback, they will need an expansive defensive repertoire. Like Peyton Manning, Brady is among the best at identifying the defense's intent -- and often correctly seeing through pre-snap deception.
That could mean some more tactical tweaks, such as zone blitzes, which could include dropping strongside linebacker Von Miller into coverage on Gronkowski.
The Broncos' sack leader has been waiting for that opportunity since his rookie season, when a torn thumb ligament hindered him late in the year -- including during a 41-23 loss to the Patriots on Dec. 18, 2011.
"I would welcome it," Miller said. "When we lost to the Patriots my rookie season, [Linebackers] Coach [Richard] Smith told me after the game, he was like, 'You need to get healthy … you need to get better in coverage. When we get guys like Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, you should be the guy covering them,' and I took that to heart. I really improved my coverage skills since that day he told me."
Because of injury and inexperience, Miller would not have been ready to flourish in a duel against Gronkowski in in 2011. He might be now.
But for all the Broncos responsible for covering Gronkowski, no amount of preparation can prepare them -- not even covering Julius Thomas in practice. The Broncos' Pro Bowl tight end is 15 pounds lighter, which means he uses his size in different ways than the brute force Gronkowski can utilize.
"It's two different tight ends," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "Gronk is just huge, man. When you have a big tight end like that, he's physically bigger than everybody."You see Julius, he's big, but he's not physically like a freak of nature like Gronk is. But we've got to do a good job on him. Last year they did a lot of rub routes, a lot of pick routes on him, kept him in motion, so they're definitely going to use him a lot against us."
The Broncos are used to extensive use of tight ends; three of the last seven touchdowns permitted by Denver's defense came from players at that position, including Antonio Gates' two scores for the Chargers on Oct. 23.
"We've got to shut down these tight ends," said Harris. "Since the Jets (game Oct. 12), they've been kind of on a roll, so we've got to be able to shut them down."
Against Gronkowski, that is far easier said than done.