Nine weeks into the season, it’s clear that we’re not dealing with the same old Bengals. Those willing also-rans who have made the playoffs four straight years, only to bow out meekly in their first game are no more. This year’s Bengals are explosive and balanced on offense, highlighted by quarterback Andy Dalton’s star turn. Another key player on the offense, however, has also turned into one of the best at his position. It’s that player that we examine further in this week’s Fact or Fiction.
Fact: Tyler Eifert is a top-three pass-catching tight end.
One of the joys of fantasy sports is predicting a player to break out, and then watching him do just that right from the jump of a new season. The fantasy community was all over Eifert during draft season, but those of us here at SI.com were aggressive in our belief that Eifert would turn into one of the most dangerous receiving tight ends in the league. He had nine catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1 and hasn’t looked back. Fully healthy for the first time in his three-year career, the 25-year-old is here to stay.
The Bengals are at the halfway point of their season, sitting at a cool 8–0. Eifert has 37 catches for 434 yards and a league-leading nine touchdowns. We don’t need Will Hunting to figure out that Eifert is on pace for 74 receptions, 868 yards and 18 scores on the season, apples that any fantasy owner certainly would like. Eifert is second among tight ends in raw fantasy points and points per game, trailing only Rob Gronkowski (111.3 to 97.4 and 13.9 to 12.2—Gronk is good). No one expects Eifert to score 18 touchdowns, or catch Gronk for that matter, but the Bengals still have games remaining with the Texans, Browns, Steelers, 49ers and Ravens, all of which are in the bottom-third of the league in yards per attempt allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, or both. In other words, Eifert’s not going to slow down very much, if at all.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Eifert’s breakout season is the varied ways in which he’s beating defenses. That was on display in the Bengals’ 31–10 thumping of the Browns last Thursday. Eifert scored three touchdowns in that game, making him and Gronkowski the only tight ends with a three-score game this season. Eifert found the end zone in strikingly different ways, showing why he’s such a tough cover for any linebacker or defensive back.
Eifert’s first touchdown against the Browns came on the Bengals’ opening possession of the game. The Bengals had a first-and-goal from the nine-yard line, with Andy Dalton in shotgun, two receivers to his left, one to his right and Eifert lined up as a traditional tight end outside the left tackle. Here’s what the formation looked like when Dalton took the snap.
Dalton holds the middle linebacker with a play fake to Jeremy Hill, and that gives Eifert a wide open middle with which to operate. When he realizes that the safety over the top isn’t going to eat up the cushion in coverage, he simply sits down in his route, making himself available to Dalton.
Eifert catches the pass at the three-yard line and easily bowls his way into the end zone.
This shows great field awareness from Eifert. If this were, say, at midfield, it would have been nothing more than a solid gain, and perhaps in that instance Eifert would have tried to take the safety up the seam. This close to the goal line, however, Eifert understood that any reception would likely lead to a score. That is exactly what happened, and his adjustment displays how he has taken advantage of his ability to freelance on a route.
Touchdown No. 2 came with about five minutes left in the second quarter and gave the Bengals a 14–3 lead. It was another goal-to-go situation, this one from the two-yard line. As such, the Bengals had a heavy package, with a fullback, two tight ends and a tackle eligible. Here’s the look of the formation at the snap.
The Browns had this one covered well initially. Dalton was supposed to have two options immediately to his left. The Browns double-covered Eifert, who was about five yards deep in the end zone, while Ryan Hewitt was unable to shake man coverage near the goal line.
As all good pass catchers do, however, Eifert kept working for his quarterback, coming back to the ball to get himself open. One man covering him was a spy on Dalton and came charging at the quarterback. The other overpursued toward the sideline, allowing Eifert to make himself free by simply cutting off his route.
Again, this shows a young player who is winning mentally and physically. By all accounts, this should have been a dead play resulting in a throw-away by Dalton. The quarterback’s ability to keep the play alive and Eifert’s awareness to come back to his passer turned it into a touchdown.
Eifert’s final score, however, was his most impressive one, and it exposes the main reason why he has broken out in his third season. Put simply, he’s just a very athletic player who can run routes that most 6'6", 250-pound guys can’t.
At this point in the game, the Bengals were well on their way to victory. Up 24–10 with the ball at the Cleveland 19-yard line, the Bengals were almost assuredly about to make it a three-score game one way or another. Instead of settling for a field goal, though, the Bengals isolated Eifert in single coverage and let him go to work in a fashion typically reserved for wide receivers.
Eifert is at the bottom of the screen with cornerback Tramon Williams in man coverage. The Browns are showing blitz with five men at the line and just one high safety. Given that there are three receivers in the route, including Eifert, it’s certain that at least two will get single coverage.
Eifert is one of the lucky ones to remain in man coverage. Williams is not so lucky. Eifert initially sells a slant route, and hey, this is a 250-pound tight end we’re talking about here—of course he’s going inside, right? That’s what Williams thought, who bought hard at what turned out to be nothing more than a feint.
Here’s what the play looked like after letting it roll another second or so from the above screenshot.
You can guess where it went from there. In case you can’t, here it is in GIF form.
We may be in a golden age of tight ends with Gronk wearing the crown and holding the scepter, but you still just don’t see double moves like that from guys of Eifert’s size with regularity. There’s a reason why it was Eifert and not Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu who got that assignment from offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. He’s as lethal a tight end as they come this side of Foxboro, and he has the benefit of playing in one of the league’s most potent offenses. Not only will he stay in the top three at the position all year, he’ll be one of the top-three scorers among tight ends from this point forward.
Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images