No End in Sight

 

 

There are a lot of questions to be asked after the Cincinnati Bengals channeled their inner-‘90s demons in a 43-17 shellacking against the New England Patriots Sunday night in Foxborough.

The first one that comes to mind: can the Bengals develop some sort of “Stop/Run” sign system to alert Brandon Tate when he should or shouldn’t bring a kickoff out of the endzone? Clearly he doesn’t have a grasp on the situation.

We’ve seen similar systems work with great success in the past …

Bengals_Gresham Gump

But there are two more serious questions that could’ve been asked for the past five weeks, and they point toward one of the most glaring problems with the Bengals offense this season—a complete lack of production from the tight end position: What the hell is wrong with Jermaine Gresham? And why the hell are the Bengals using him so awkwardly out of his comfort zone?

Two years ago when the Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert in the first round out of Notre Dame, smart people were asking things like “Are Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert the best tight end duo in the NFL?”

It was a legitimate question then, with Aaron Hernandez’s murder indictments destroying his duo with the Gronk Smash in New England, and Eifert joining forces with a back-to-back Pro Bowler in Gresham. After modest numbers and plenty of promise in their first full season together— 85 combined catches, 903 yards and six touchdowns—it was still a realistic question heading into this 2014 season., as well With new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s offense being tailor-made to utilize Eifert’s athletic ability in the screen game and out wide—i.e. Jimmy Graham, Saints—it looked as if 2014 could be a break-out year for the Eifert/Gresham duo.

But five weeks into the season, Eifert has missed 15-of-16 quarters after dislocating his elbow in Week 1, and Gresham has produced next to nothing as the loan tight end in his place. Eifert entered the season as the clear first receiving choice at tight end and looked the part in Week 1 before leaving the game in the first quarter, catching all three of his targeted throws for 37 yards. Gresham, who has never had a great relationship with Cincinnati fans, made some question if he’d also fallen out of favor with the Bengals coaching staff, stating in a Week 2 media availability that he didn’t think his role would increase because of Eifert’s injury. Unfortunately for the Bengals, he was half right. Gresham has seen significantly more snaps than anticipated, but has notched just eight receptions—Eifert hauled in three receptions on just eight snaps against Baltimore.

Gresham ranks near the bottom in tight end statistics in every offensive category—33rd in targets (13), 36th in receptions (8), 45th in yards (65), no touchdowns—and every single team in the NFL has at least one tight end with more receiving yards than Gresham.

Naturally, with Eifert injured, the Bengals tight end production mirrors Gresham’s ineffectiveness. The Bengals rank 31st in the NFL in receiving yards from the tight end position with 101 yards, only 48 of which have come since Week 1. They’re also one of only six teams currently without any touchdowns from a tight end. All of this has contributed to the Bengals woes in the redzone, where they have converted just 58.33% of their chances into touchdowns, and where Andy Dalton has yet to throw for a score. If you can’t utilize a 6-foot-6 tight end in the red zone, where can you?

It’d be easy to point out Gresham’s lack of targets (13) and question the Bengals commitment to utilizing him, or the relationship he has with Dalton. But Gresham has looked a step slow on his routes, and has done little with his limited targets to justify going out of the way to increase his involvement. It is odd, however, that the Bengals have tried to use Gresham in many of the ways more tailored to what we expected to see as Eifert’s specific role in the passing game, which clearly has not been met with any success.

Gresham’s performance against New England displayed all of these issues glaringly. He dropped his first target of the game, a perfect pass from Dalton in the right corner of the end zone that would’ve cut the Bengals deficit to just seven points as halftime beckoned. He was lucky not to be charged with two more drops on the night, as he was bailed out by a weak pass interference call and a Dalton overthrow that appeared to be just as much a product of Gresham’s lack of explosion—perhaps knee injuries that ended his high school basketball career and forced him to sit out his senior season at Oklahoma are starting to take hold. But it is worth noting that both plays didn’t make sense for Gresham in terms of design. On the first he was lined up as the lone receiver, wide left, which seems fruitless. Gresham is a good run blocker, and that the receiver alignment disallows him the ability to release off an interior block on a play-action pass. The second was a short drag back across the middle, which—much like a screen pass—Gresham doesn’t have the speed to turn into anything.

With Gresham on pace to haul in less than 400 yards receiving this season and Eifert out for at least five more weeks, the Bengals have to make an effort to get Gresham the ball up the seams and release him in the secondary on play-action sets. But there’s only so much that can change; he’s clearly not the same player the Bengals thought he was when they drafted him in front of Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski in 2010. And thus far, he hasn’t even looked like the same guy who caught 67 passes for 737 yards in 2012, either.

With no better option on the roster or available on waivers, the Bengals are left wondering the same thing we are: What the hell is going on with Jermaine Gresham?

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