Super Bowl 2018: What it feels like to tackle Patriots' rhino-on-the-loose Rob Gronkowski

MINNEAPOLIS – Imagine this: You are a 200-pound defensive back tasked with trying to bring down 6-foot-6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski, a player known for throwing off tacklers like they were kids in the third grade.

That's the exact situation Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle has faced a few times in his career, man on man with a player who outweighs him by 60 pounds and stands six inches taller.

"He's like a big rhinoceros running down the field," Weddle said last week during a break from Pro Bowl practices (er, walk-throughs).

Others have different names to describe the brutality of playing against Gronk.

"He's a monster," Miami Dolphins safety Reshad Jones said. "You have to go low, or else."

"It feels like hitting a brick," Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward said. "He's so big. That's why they don't have me covering him much."

Since coming into the league in 2010, Gronkowski has become the benchmark by which all other tight ends are measured. He is listed at 6-6, 265 pounds, but those who hit him think he's heavier than that, and he has the ability to get down the field with his speed.

He can run by safeties, but he can also outmuscle them. He is too physical for most corners, yet runs too well for many of the league's linebackers. Oh, he's also a heck of a blocker, capable of handling pass-rushing ends when asked to do so and owning the strength and power to let backs get wide behind his blocks on the edge.

That makes him the best tight end in the league, and one of the rare dual-threat guys who can catch it and also block.

Visions of Gronkowski throwing off defenders or running through tackles have been plenty during his career. That has led to many players going low on him, and one such hit – by Cleveland's T.J. Ward in 2013 – ended with Gronkowski tearing an ACL.

But in the AFC Championship game, Jacksonville safety Barry Church went high and ended up getting flagged for a personal foul, a hit that knocked Gronkowski from the game with a concussion and put him in the concussion protocol leading up to this week's Super Bowl. He has said he will play, which most expected.

So do you go high or go low when he's bearing down on you?

"I shoot for the legs," Broncos corner Aqib Talib. "That's the best way to get that big guy down."

"You have to hit him in his legs and wrap up," Hayward said. "That's a big guy to be going up high against."

Hayward doesn't remember the exact play where he tackled Gronk, but said it came when he was covering him in man coverage. He said he wrapped up and held on.

That's part of the strategy for a lot of defenders. Wrap him and hold on for dear life.

"Any way you try and get him is tough to do," Weddle said. "There have been some times where I have hung on to him and just waited for my teammates to come."

Weddle spent part of a game in 2014 on Gronkowski, playing him in man coverage. He gave up one catch to him on a slant, but tackled him three times total. The tape showed him putting Gronkowski down on the slant after an 11-yard gain with a diving tackle. He also came up and hit him in the hip area to drop him on a play that was nullified by penalty. And, while playing deep safety, he came up and helped tackle Gronkowski after a short completion.

Tackle probably isn't the right word. Gronk never went down, even as three Chargers, including Weddle, tried to pull him to the ground. Instead, the whistle was blown and Gronkowski was still standing.

"In my opinion, it's harder when in phase trying to get him down when running with him," Weddle said. "If you have an angle on him (from the deep middle), he's not going to juke you. You just take your shot."

The 11-yard slant Gronk got on Weddle showed why it could be tough to tackle Gronkowski from more than just a physical issue.

"He's so long, but you don't notice it until he gets into the open field," Weddle said. "On the one catch he had on me (in 2014), I had outside leverage and he took two steps on the slant and he was like four yards away. I ran him down. But his stride is so long. His two steps were like four of mine. You can't replicate that in practice. He also plays physical on the top of routes. He always pushes off at the top of the route. He's good at it."

Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley said he tackled him in a 2015 game a few times, but mostly by wrapping him up after the catch.

"I never had a clean shot on him," Mosley said. "But if I did, I would just throw my body into him. I am a big guy and he's a big guy. May the best man win. I never try and go for the chop, go for the legs."

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones tackled Gronkowski in a game this season. It wasn't a big hit, but rather wrapping much like Mosley.

"But if it were in the open field, I'd aim right for the belt buckle," Jones said "How can you go high with a guy that big. And I ain't shooting a leg. You have to take your shot. You have to prove to yourself, not everybody else, but yourself, that you can bring him down with a big hit."

That's a lot easier to say than do, as history has taught us. At some point in the Super Bowl, we will almost certainly see a Gronkowski special, him lumbering after catching a pass with defenders doing anything and everything to get him down – a rhino on the loose.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an... Full Bio

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