Much like last season, one of the bigger storylines going into the Cincinnati Bengals season opener was the onset of what many felt would be Tyler Eifert’s breakthrough to the upper echelon of receiving tight ends. And for all the disappointment and uncertainty resultant of his season-ending elbow injury in the first quarter of last year’s season opener against the Ravens, Eifert’s performance against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday seems to have resulted in double the optimism surrounding his return.
The Bengals first play from scrimmage went to Eifert, a simple four yard pass over the middle designed to start establishing the connection between Andy Dalton and a legitimate tight end threat, which never materialized for the Bengals in Eifert’s absence last season. It took all of seven plays for Eifert to match his total receptions mark from last season (three) capping his part in the Bengals first scoring drive with a 10-yard catch-and-run down the right sideline to the Raiders’ 12-yard line. The reception marked the first of seven consecutive receptions for Eifert that resulted in either a first down or a touchdown, a true display of the value of a modern-day receiving tight end. He was responsible for two first downs and 41 yards on the Bengals next scoring drive, hauling in a 31-yard catch down the seam to put the Bengals in the redzone, which set up an eventual 32-yard chip shot for Mike Nugent. This is where Eifert’s value can be most easily seen from a play-calling standpoint: His 31-yard reception (longer than any reception by a Bengals tight end in 2014) came from a three-receiver set, which generally results in an equal amount of run and pass plays, because multiple defenders must line up outside of the box. A versatile tight end like Eifert allows the Bengals to run a legitimate four verticals pattern from that type of alignment, which was not a luxury the Bengals had last season with Jermaine Gresham’s lack of speed and versatility. In this instance, the Bengals have A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones (who also missed all of last season), and Eifert running verticals against a deep Cover 3 Zone, forcing tough transitions between linebackers and the free safety. That situation will favor the Bengals more times than not, and it stems from Eifert’s presence negating the defense’s ability to predict the play based on personnel.
Eifert’s only mistake of the game came on a nearly identical play to start off the Bengals fourth drive, when he dropped a 30-plus-yard pass. In real-time, it looked as if he heard the footsteps of what could’ve been a vicious Charles Woodson hit had he hauled in the catch. At any rate, Eifert redeemed himself on the Bengals final drive of the half, which he started with an 18-yard reception, and finished with a strong, Gronk-esque, 13-yard touchdown grab over Neiko Thorpe to give the Bengals a 24-0 lead and remove any doubt whatsoever as the teams headed to the locker rooms for halftime.
Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate what Eifert’s return could mean for the Bengals long-term success this season is to point out that his 96 receiving yards at halftime were 28 more than any Bengals tight end posted for a full-game total in 2014—Gresham’s 68 yards against the Panthers was the season high. While that speaks equal parts to Eifert’s potential and Gresham’s ineptitude, it certainly looks to play out well for the Bengals this season. And that’s what his return is all about—it’s not just that he’s an actual option, it’s that he has the look of a possible elite option. The Bengals could go from no production at all to having one of the best players in the game at a position that continues to have a larger impact on the league every year.
Eifert’s 104 yards and 12 targets both would’ve been season highs for a Bengals tight end in 2014. His nine receptions would’ve been second best to Gresham’s 10 (for a whopping 48 yards) in the Bengals 27-0 loss to the Colts in Week 7. In total, Gresham, Ryan Hewitt, and Kevin Brock combined for 567 yards and 5 touchdowns as the Bengals cumulative tight ends in 2014, and it doesn’t seem out of reach for Eifert to have easily surpassed those totals by week seven or eight if he plays anywhere near the level that he showed on Sunday, especially considering the Bengals took their foot completely off the gas mid-way through the third quarter. Eifert saw only three targets in the second half, but showed his redzone presence once again, using his size and athleticism to get his body above and around DJ Hayden for a leaping 8-yard touchdown. Eifert has the intangibles to be in the rare group of tight ends that is a permanent mismatch—always either taller or more athletic than the individual covering him, be it a defensive back or a linebacker. What separates the Gronks and Jimmy Grahams of the NFL is that they are almost always both. We’ll see where Eifert falls in rank with those two at the end of the season, but it’s exciting that he has chance be thought of in that conversation down the road.
On paper, the one thing that the playoff-victory-barren Andy Dalton-era Bengals teams have lacked is a dynamic tight end. Now, with a full core of healthy receivers, arguably the best running back duo in the NFL, and a defense which didn’t allow Oakland a single play in its territory until the final seconds of the third quarter, perhaps a breakthrough from Eifert is the final piece.
Joshua A. Miller is a Fulcher 2 Stay and Cincinnati Magazine contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @_J_A_Miller.