IRVING, Texas – For the third time this season, the Cowboys' defense is facing a Pro Bowl pass catcher.
First, Odell Beckham. Then, Julio Jones.
Now, Rob Gronkowski.
How have teams contained Tom Brady's go-to guy – the Patriots' fun-loving, touchdown-scoring tight end?
Well, they haven't.
Gronkowski has the NFL's fifth-highest receiving yards per game average (102.7) and he's tied for second in receiving touchdowns (4). Three came in the world champion Patriots' season-opening win against the Steelers.
Brady has targeted Gronkowski 28 times in their 3-0 start. He has caught 16 for 308 yards, his 19.3 average the third-highest among players with at least 10 catches and perhaps the best demonstration of his remarkable athleticism at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds.
In some ways, Gronkowski presents to cornerbacks, linebackers and safeties the same challenge LeBron James gives small forwards, power forwards and centers. There aren't many defenders, if any, big enough and quick enough to stick with him.
Like most teams do with their best pass-catchers, the Patriots move Gronkowski around the formation trying to find ideal matchups and get him away from double coverage. New England has also caught defenses off-guard with a hurry-up approach at times, allowing Gronkowski a free release off the line of scrimmage.
So, how do the Cowboys, who have allowed an average of 32.5 points in their last two losses, go about covering No. 87?
Perhaps they start with rookie Byron Jones.
The first-round pick and combo safety/cornerback has found a nice first-year niche covering tight ends in the dime package. He has 10 team-credited tackles and three pass breakups through four games. Last Sunday against the Saints, he made consecutive impressive tackles on running back Mark Ingram and tight end Benjamin Watson to force a punt.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said defending Gronkowski, who has the seventh-most 100-yard games by a tight end in NFL history (17), doesn't fall solely on Jones' shoulders.
"Well, it's our challenge," Garrett said. "Gronkowski's a really good football player, so we never just put one guy on him. We've got to try to slow their offense down a lot of different ways, and he's a big part of their offense.
"But just speaking towards Byron, he's done a really good job. He's a young player. He hasn't been in a lot of these situations yet but he was both a safety and a corner in college. He's a very good athlete, he's a mature guy and he hasn't shied away from anything. Whether it's a rep against a really good player in training camp or whether it's opportunities in the first part of the season, he always goes at 100 percent."
Jones says he's gaining confidence with more and more reps each week and his additional film study for both positions. He also has benefited from practicing against Jason Witten, who's fifth on that career 100-yard receiving games list (20).
"Just the way he practices, he's not going to come out and drag his feet," Jones said. "Even when he was hurt he was still practicing. Just him bringing his 'A' game is going to help not only me but the entire team."
Gronkowski indeed expects to see the Cowboys run other defenders at him besides Jones.
"He's a great player, especially for his first four games of his NFL career," Gronkowski said. "Just got to be prepared for him, as well as being prepared for everyone else, too. You never know who you're going to face. You've got to study the whole defense, study every player because you never know who is going to be matched up on you at any time."
It'll take a team effort to attempt to slow him down.