Why Bengals' Tyler Eifert is a matchup nightmare
The Bengals suddenly don’t look like the usual Cincinnati teams we’ve seen in recent seasons—capable, but prone to stumbling against the better teams, ultimately flattering to deceive.
The Cincinnati front office has always taken the approach that Andy Dalton can win if they surround him with enough talent. Until this year, they had a good roster, but maybe not quite enough around weapons around the quarterback. A.J. Green is still there; Gio Bernard, Jeremy Hill, Mohammad Sanu ,and Marvin Jones have all been there before, albeit rarely all healthy together. The real key, though, to this surge to 5-0 is the play of Tyler Eifert.
Sometimes draft picks come in and make an instant impact. Given how long they are signed for, everybody hopes their rookies, especially first-rounders, are instant stars. All too often, however, it takes a year or two for them to really show what they are capable of.
Eifert was underwhelming as a rookie, and then suffered a dislocated elbow in Week 1 of 2014, ending his season after just eight snaps. This season, we are seeing why he was such a highly-touted first round pick—and he might just be the reason that Andy Dalton is currently on the best run of his professional career.
Let’s start with the obvious—measurables.
Eifert is 6 feet, 6 inches tall, weighing in at 250 pounds. He ran a 4.65 40 time at the combine, and had a 35.5 inch vertical leap. What we’re describing here is, essentially, Jimmy Graham—or one of the league’s most athletically-gifted players at the position.
Like Graham, Eifert presents immediate challenges for a defense trying to cover him. Who do you send out to try and run with him? A linebacker? Safety? Cornerback? So far this season, he has laid waste to each, and amassed a +7.0 receiving grade, trailing only Rob Gronkowski for the best among TEs.
That figure would have been the sixth-best mark in the NFL over the whole of last season, and he is on pace to come very close to the league-best figure Gronkowski posted last season.
In the first game of the season, the Bengals destroyed the Oakland Raiders—a team that has subsequently looked far better than that game would have indicated. Eifert had 104 receiving yards on nine catches, hauling in a couple of touchdowns and gaining 48 of those yards after the catch. The Bengals began by lining Eifert up in-line as a traditional tight end, causing the Raiders to cover him with linebackers. This did not go well for Oakland.
Take this play as an example:
Eifert runs a simple drag route across the field into the coverage of LB Malcolm Smith. He catches the ball and spins back around, beating Smith and helping him to the ground as he dives for a tackle at around the 50-yard line, before gaining more yardage and dragging safety Charles Woodson for a few more yards before ultimately being brought down.
Too fast. Too strong. Too big.
The Raiders ultimately gave up trying to cover him with linebackers, and ended up putting cornerback D.J. Hayden on him down by the goal line when he was split out in the slot.
If Eifert proved too quick and fast for linebackers to cover him early in the game, here was where he displayed that he is too big and powerful for cornerbacks to cope with. There is nothing complex about the route for this touchdown. Eifert widens Hayden a little on the release before cutting back towards the post where the ball is thrown. It’s a poor ball from Andy Dalton, and brings Hayden back into the picture, but the corner is just overwhelmed by the big tight end, who catches the ball practically through him before holding on and completing the reception. This is a great example of a receiver making his quarterback look good. It goes down on the stat sheet as a touchdown for Dalton, but it was not a well thrown pass (at all), and all the credit should go to the big receiver for rescuing the pass.
One of the things that stood out from his tape was how quick to secure the ball Eifert is even when making tough, contested catches. While many bigger guys just rely on taking it away from smaller coverage defenders and then using pure strength to keep hold of the football in their hands, if it is at all possible, Eifert works to tuck the ball away and secure it with as much control as he can. This is a little thing, and the percentage benefit it brings is minimal, but it is the kind of marginal edge that can mean the difference between a play being made or not—and who knows how important that play could be in the Bengals season?
In a similar vein, Eifert doesn’t just rely on the ball coming to him in routes, but attacks it with his hands and makes the catch well away from his body, maximizing the benefit of his huge frame and catch radius. Take this touchdown against the Seahawks in Week 5, for example. After a bust in the coverage underneath, Eifert finds himself running into the end zone with only CB Cary Williams to hold off as the ball arrives. Williams actually does a very good job of getting to where he does, and had Eifert waited for that ball to arrive into his body, Williams would likely have broken it up and prevented the touchdown. But, look how far away from the tight end’s body the catch is made. Eifert extends to get the ball in a spot that Williams simply can’t reach.
The Seahawks, for their part, went for the third option when it comes to covering Eifert—putting a safety on him. Kam Chancellor is one of the best strong safeties in the game. He is 6 feet, 3 inches tall, 235 pounds, and has a 4.69 40 time. And, he cannot cover Tyler Eifert.
Eifert caught four of the five passes thrown his way when Chancellor was covering him, including a key 25-yard reception late in the game that put the Bengals into field goal range. Eifert beat Chancellor badly off the line, and even with Dalton throwing the pass further outside than would normally be the case to keep FS Earl Thomas out of the equation, he was able to run around Chancellor and make the diving catch.
The biggest issue with covering Eifert is that most defenses simply don’t have an athlete that can do what he does, and if they do, chances are he’s rushing the passer. Chancellor is as close as most teams can come to the size, strength, and speed combination necessary to attempt it, and he was torched when he tried. That alone ensures production, but there is an added factor to Eifert’s game that separates him from somebody like Jimmy Graham: blocking.
Rob Gronkowski is the best TE in the game because he can do everything Eifert does, and he blocks as well as anybody else at the position. He is the ultimate, complete tight end. Jimmy Graham has never had even a slight interest in blocking. He is basically a big wide receiver that lines up as an in-line tight end some of the time. Arguably, the best case he could have made in claiming he should be classified as a wideout for contract purposes would be to send in a tape reel of his run blocking attempts. The Saints had a pretty clear understanding of this, and part of his growing pains with the Seahawks were caused by the team’s expectations that he would block for the run as a tight end should.
Eifert is no Gronkowski, but he is just good enough as a run blocker to mean that teams can’t simply put their best coverage defensive back on him and play him like a wide receiver. If they do that, he is capable of blocking that guy out of the play, giving the Bengals the man-advantage on the ground. Both of Jeremy Hill’s touchdowns against Kansas City featured key blocks by Eifert. On this play, he blocks Eric Berry—another good bet on paper to cover him—completely out of the play. Berry was put on Eifert rather than a linebacker because of his threat as a receiver, but he can’t live with Eifert’s size and strength head up when it comes to defending the run.
Given this, blocking teams need to seriously consider what to play Eifert as when it comes to personnel packages. Do they respect his ability as a blocker and play him with a linebacker, understanding how vulnerable that makes them in the passing game? Do they sacrifice some strength against the run in order to cover him with a defensive back?
Or, do they just take a look at him, understand that they have no single player that can hope to contain him one-on-one, and start drawing up ways to take him away schematically? We are getting to the stage where that is the only viable option for defenses, which is why Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals’ run isn’t going to go away any time soon.