ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --When you look at Rob Gronkowski, you have to start with a simple, yet sobering concept: He does things and possesses physical abilities unlike any tight end before him.
He has the power and soft hands of John Mackey, but his changes of direction are smoother and quicker. He has the fluid grace and ability to get separation of Jerry Smith and Shannon Sharpe but at 265 pounds, has far more power Smith and Sharpe, the two holders of the league's all-time touchdown record for tight ends until Tony Gonzalez came along.
And while Gonzalez had better body control in mid-flight, Gronkowski is better at getting separation, whether through a shove or perhaps the most effective fake any tight end has ever had, with ability to smoothly step inside and force the defender to bite as he cuts outside, or vice versa. This works against defenders at any position: linebackers, safeties, and even cornerbacks.
That step and misdirection is why pure man-to-man coverage doesn't often work against Gronkowski; he takes that step and has enough separation. When combined with a quick read from Tom Brady, who delivers the ball as Gronkowski makes his cut, the results are often lethal.
Even when he's bracketed, he still makes the play more often than not. And zone coverage has plenty of drawbacks, as well, since Gronkowski reads it effectively and finds gaps.
Even when he's bracketed, he still makes the play more often than not.
So how do you contain him? Gonzalez himself suggests jamming Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage -- which he said Bill Belichick's Patriots did to him.
"I don't see why no one else does this because it's so frustrating," Gonzalez told The Wall Street Journal. "It was 'gunner coverage,' like it was a punt. I couldn't even get three yards down the field. It was him saying 'OK, everyone else, let's see what you can do, because the tight end isn't beating us.'"
Of course, if you jam the Patriots' targets too much, they'll counter by running more bunch formations and then fanning their targets out short, which effectively forces an opponent into a zone. No single tactic can be overused, because the Patriots will adapt. The Broncos must also disguise what they do to provide at least a little hesitation for Gronkowski, who is rarely thrown off by a defensive alignment.
And then there's his ability to make plays after the catch. The numbers bear this out; with an average of 7.84 yards after the reception, he leads all receivers and tight ends with at least 400 total receiving yards this season.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes what seems like a small city to bring down Gronkowski. No wonder Aqib Talib suggested in November that the way to stop Gronkowski was to "triple team" him.
"We have to tackle Rob well," said Broncos OLB Von Miller. "He's very good at breaking tackles, very good at yards after contact so we are going to have to be excellent right there to have a chance to win the game."
It takes a swarm: One man to hold up Gronk, and others to finish the job.
"Whatever way you can get him down - that's the best way," safety T.J. Ward said. "I don't pre-plan how I tackle someone. Whatever way he comes to me is the way I'm going to try to get him down."
The net result? Gronkowski is not only the most productive tight end in NFL history on a per-game basis ... he's the most productive by miles.
Consider that he's averaging one touchdown reception every 1.23 games. No other touchdown in NFL annals is within 0.44 games of that -- not even the league's all-time leader at the position, Gonzalez, who scored once every 2.43 games in racking up a league-tight-end-record 111 touchdowns.
It took Gonzalez 270 games over 17 seasons to set that standard, which surpassed the previous record holder, Sharpe, by 49 touchdowns. Gronkowski already has three more touchdown catches in six seasons than Sharpe had in 14. At Gronkowski's current rate, he'll surpass Gonzalez's record in 138 games -- just three games more than half of what it took Gonzalez to score 111 touchdowns.
If the Broncos are to beat the best, they'll have to beat the best -- and at tight end, Gronkowski is the best -- a natural descendant of the men who preceded him, and now the standard by which all tight ends are measured.