originally published in Locker Room Update. Used by permission.

by Alex Peterman

Coming out of Sunday’s afternoon game against their instate-rival, the Cleveland Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals secured their sweep in the Battle of Ohio. However, they did so without star tight end Tyler Eifert, who was dealing with a neck injury that he suffered on a hit late in the game against the St. Louis Rams last Sunday.

This was Eifert’s first missed game since he suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 1 of 2014. Just one year later, the 6’6,” 250-pound tight end is playing a major role in the dynamic Bengals offense. The connection between quarterback Andy Dalton and Eifert has been so significant, in fact, that the peaks and valleys of Cincinnati’s season can very much be linked to their chemistry on the field.

Without a doubt, A.J. Green is the downfield threat of this offense–and he certainly has a propensity for creating the game-changing plays. He became just the second receiver to have 1,000 yards receiving in his first five games–a feat only previously done by Randy Moss. But it is Eifert who Dalton has a tendency to turn to when they need six points in the red zone. That’s because it is the former-Notre Dame standout that is the one creating problems as a matchup nightmare for opposing secondaries. Quoted as “incoverable” back in camp, his rare combination of the ability to catch in traffic and his knack for stretching the middle of the field has proven deadly.

After all, he has 12 touchdowns in just 11 games played, three more than A.J. Green and Marvin Jones–the team’s leading receivers–combined.

Eifert highlights a receiving core of young talent. In fact, even with the youth movement in the secondary, Cincinnati’s offense has traditionally been younger than the defensive side of the ball. Early on in Dalton’s career, we saw those growing pains when red zone trips failed to yield touchdowns more times than not. But we’ve also seen significant growth in Dalton’s fifth year–even from just last year–at the line of scrimmage. He’s running audibles at the line, he’s progressing through his reads smoothly, and the Bengals are 10-2.

Much of that has to do with getting the ball to Eifert in the end zone. Because history shows that when they fail to get him the ball, or when Eifert isn’t meeting expectations, Cincinnati’s offense clearly misses a beat.

We don’t have to look much further than the Bengals’ first loss of the season, which came at the hands of the Houston Texans. This was, by all account, Eifert’s worst game of the season. He recorded three receptions on seven targets for just 26 yards, but the biggest knock on his performance was that he also had three key drops. Two of them would have extended drives.

In another game, he recorded just 39 yards on four receptions, and there were four incompleted passes thrown his way. That was the offensive debacle against the Steelers, a game in which neither team appeared to be able to extend drives apart from the first quarter.

It’s important to realize that Eifert is not a traditional work-horse producer in the middle of the field. The upstart tight end has only eclipsed the 100-yard mark once this year, which was the Bengals’ home-opener against the Oakland Raiders. In 11 games, Eifert has only passed the 50-yard mark four times.

It’s an unusual scenario for a receiver who has so many scores, but perhaps that is what is most remarkable about Eifert’s specialty role in the Bengals offense. In fact, the low yardage count acts as a sort of testament to how strong the connection between Dalton and Eifert becomes in the red zone. His production shoots from very little targets to seeing the most looks from Dalton almost mechanically.

Part of it can be broken down to physical ability. He’s fast enough that the majority of NFL linebackers can’t cover him; at the same times, his size makes it exceedingly difficult for defensive backs to box him out or physically gain the inside shoulder against him on crossing routes.

“It’s very difficult to guard someone like Tyler Eifert because of his size and speed, former Bengals linebacker Adrian “Maddbacker” Ross told me.

“Linebackers have a lot of assignment–they have a lot of homework to do. They have to stop the running back, they have to beat the linemen on blocks, and then they have to cover guys like Tyler. It’s hard because of hesitation, hesitation of whether it’s a run or pass first of all, then the hardest of them all is they try to guess which route he’s running.”

But that’s only the beginning. The reason that he has been so productive in the red zone is undoubtedly linked to the fact that a strong trust has developed between him and his quarterback. Yes, part of it is probably due to the mismatches against opposing defense. But it’s a trust that also likely stems from Eifert repeatedly coming out on top with contested passes.

The importance of that in a quarterback’s eyes shouldn’t be overstated.

Individually, his role approaches the record-books. Cole Harvey of ESPN had the following to say about the big Bengals’ target:

“Tyler Eifert won’t set a new single-season NFL record in touchdown catches by a tight end, but the Bengal will tie the current mark. With 12 scores entering Week 13, Eifert is just five touchdowns shy Rob Gronkowski’s record of 17 from 2011. With four games to go, Eifert is on pace to finish with 16. His chances at tying Gronkowski significantly increase if he returns this week from a neck/stinger injury.”

That’s already a fairly illustrious comparison. And even though Gronkowski has proven to see more production in between the end-zones, it’s arguably Eifert that has overshadowed every other tight end this year. But to push his individual efforts out of the foreground for a moment, it’s important to realize how important his role is on Cincinnati’s offense. It’s been some time since the Bengals had a legitimate weapon at the tight end position. Cincy Jungle’s Kyle Phelps suggests the last tight end that carried as much significance as Eifert does to this offense goes all the way back to the late 1980s and early 1990s teams with Rodney Holman.

Photo credit: Fox News

Photo credit: Fox News

Each Bengals receiver on this offense has a designated role, one not determined by rule, but rather by precedence. I spoke with Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole about how the “Eifert effect” fits into the dynamic of the Bengals offense.

“Eifert is probably the second-best tight end in the game right now behind Gronkowski.,” Cole said. “He is the proverbial queen on the chessboard because of his ability to line up all over the field and force matchup problems. The night he scored three touchdowns against Cleveland, he was simply uncoverable. His presence changes everything for the Bengals because they have the perfect combination of No. 1 (A.J. Green), red-zone receiver (Eifert), deep threat (Marvin Jones) and flexible possession guy (Mo Sanu). This is the type of receiving combo that can work even when defenses are allowed to be more physical in the playoffs.”

Long story short, Tyler Eifert is built for scoring touchdowns. And if they’re going to eclipse that playoff barrier in 2015, the Bengals will continue to give Eifert the ball when it counts the most.

 

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