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Tyler Eifert doubtful vs Browns means it's time for Tyler Kroft and Ryan Hewitt to step up

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Two guys who haven't caught many passes this season may need to do so if Cincinnati is to pull off the season-sweep of Cleveland.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals will likely be missing star tight end Tyler Eifert this Sunday when they take on the Cleveland Browns; he's been ruled as doubtful to play.

That's a big loss for the Bengals' offense that Eifert has become a go-to weapon in this season. He's accounted for 46 catches on 66 targets for 522 yards, 33 first downs and an NFL-leading 12 touchdowns. That's an average of six targets per game that are going to someone else this Sunday, and the two guys who may benefit most are tight ends Ryan Hewitt and Tyler Kroft.

Hewitt, now in his second season as the Bengals' starting fullback/h-back, has caught five passes on eight targets for 74 yards this season. He caught 10 balls on 14 targets for 86 yards last season as a rookie, but has spent more time blocking during his first 27 games in the NFL, something he's done well at.

As he told's Geoff Hobson, Hewitt knows he and others must step up if Eifert is out this Sunday.

"That’s definitely inherent if a guy like him goes down,’ Hewitt said. "Everyone steps up and their role expands."

Another guy who must step up this week is Kroft, a fourth-round rookie out of Rutgers who has played sparingly this season. He's been targeted just two times this year with his lone catch for four yards coming this past Sunday during a blowout win over the St. Louis Rams.

With Eifert being such a big part of the offense, Kroft hasn't sulked about not getting much playing time behind him. It's actually helped Kroft get eased into the offense as he gets acclimated to the NFL, as he told Paul Dehner of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

"They’ve done a good job easing me into it," Kroft said. "I want to be out there as much as I can, but Tyler is playing at a Pro Bowl caliber right now. I’m not too bent out of shape they are using me as much as they are. I’ve noticed they are trying to include me more and more."

Though Kroft hasn't been part of the offense, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson expects him to step up when called upon.

"He’s growing," Jackson said. "You have to earn the trust and respect of coaches and teammates. He’s done that over time. We’ll see what he can do. He’s a young player. Sometimes you put them out there too soon you can hurt their growth. His role is expanding more and more and more. I think he’s coming on."

Hewitt also likes what he's seen of Kroft, though it's a much different situation. Whereas Kroft was a fairly high draft pick, Hewitt was an undrafted free agent out of Stanford last season who's had to fight for his role on the time.

"He’s coming along. It’s not the easiest role to come in and be a high draft pick and have all those expectations put on you," Hewitt said of Kroft. "It’s the polar opposite of the boat I was in last year.  I was undrafted and you don’t have expectations. People are, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ In that sense I think he’s doing a good job of getting used to it and understanding what people expect from him and picking up his game."

The good news is, even if Hewitt and/or Kroft aren't a big part of the passing game, they've shown they can contribute in other areas. Hewitt has become a great blocking fullback who has helped spring some big runs this season. Kroft isn't too shabby blocking on the edge, something Cincinnati has needed more of lately after allowing 17 sacks between Weeks 5-11, but none last week against a stout Rams defense.

While not having Eifert this week isn't ideal, it will be a great opportunity to see what Hewitt and Kroft can do in an expanded role. Because Eifert has played in every game to this point, we've not gotten a good chance to see what Hewitt is capable of now in his second season.

Maybe he's someone the Bengals need to start using more on offense and have him running more routes instead of staying in to block as often as he does. Though, the running game without a doubt excels more when he's a part of it. He made a pretty nice catch in the Week 6 win over the Bills that suggests he could be a viable option in this offense if given more chances.

When Sunday comes, the Bengals should be able to beat the Browns with or without Eifert and having Hewitt or Kroft step up will be nice to see.