Those are the Bengals win-loss records and points per game when tight end Tyler Eifert did or did not record a reception, respectively. Eifert has played in 39 of the Bengals 80 regular season contests since he was drafted and has caught at least one pass in 38 of them. While the number of wins are the same, the four added losses and 2.57 less points per game don’t look like big differentials over a five year span.
Combine those two records and you get 46-32-2, the Bengals total regular season win-loss results since 2013. The total point differential between Cincinnati and their opposition in those 80 games is +237, for an average of 2.96 per game. The difference between Eifert and no Eifert is almost the Bengals average point differential.
Though it may not seem clear as day on paper, Eifert’s affect on the Bengals offense as a whole is ranks at the top of the list along with A.J. Green. This isn’t really breaking news, as both are amongst the top of their positions and have been for a few years.
What makes Eifert arguably more valuable specifically in the Andy Dalton-led Bengals offense is how he creates mismatches all over the field inside and outside the red zone. Despite Tyler Kroft’s surprising emergence, there’s a reason why third down and red zone deficiencies were plagues to the Bengals offense in 2017.
Cincinnati’s offense was in desperate need of the plays Eifert consistently made in 2015 and 2016.
Eifert is the embodiment of the modern tight end: a much bigger wide receiver. At 255 pounds, Eifert is a very nuanced route runner. He manipulates defenders going in and out of his breaks with head fakes and unloads strong lower body explosion at the stems of his vertical routes.
At flanker, slot, inline Y or H, Eifert can run squeaky clean routes to any depth to gain separation, but has the size to box out defenders and catch radius that can’t be defended by average linebackers and defensive backs.
On a third-and-short against the Redskins, the Bengals go in a 3x1 (three receivers on one side, one on the other) set out of 11 personnel with Eifert closest to the line of scrimmage. Since the MIKE linebacker is sugaring the b-gap and doesn’t line up over Eifert, while the playside safety is 17 yards away, the Bengals can tell a zone blitz is coming.
The MIKE immediately drops back to the middle of the field and starts running with Eifert. He’s got help on the outside so his job is to take away inside leverage. The route Eifert runs is what’s called a “stick and nod”, and the reason why it got the linebacker to over run the route and fall on his stomach is how Eifert sells the route.
Separation entails more than just athletic ability, and the most successful receivers know how to manipulate defenders mid-route. By looking back to Dalton out of the first break, the MIKE aggressively attempts to cutoff the window and loses all of his inside leverage.
The middle of the field is wide open due to the safeties being occupied by vertical clear out routes by Green and Brandon Lafell, and Eifert makes a wide open catch for a first-down.
Flipping the stick and nod on its and turning it into a corner route, Eifert does the same thing and gets both the linebacker playing trail technique coverage and the single high safety out of whack. Just a simple head fake while selling a post gets the linebacker flowing towards his left and the safety to his right. Eifert plants his foot in the ground and takes advantage of the space he created for the easy six points.
Now in a 2x2 look, the Bengals are trying to exploit the Eagle 2-high zone look. The playside is target for Dalton as the route combo of Lafell and Eifert will leave the back corner of the end zone wide open. Lafell’s out route occupies the corner which leaves the safety all alone against Eifert.
Inside the Pylon’s Matt Caraccio once said that the biggest weapon that a wide receiver possesses is his ability to threaten the vertical route. Eifert’s 4.68 speed at over 250 pounds is dangerous and it will keep any off coverage defensive back on his heels like it did here. He explodes towards the back pylon at the top of the stem and the safety doesn’t stand a chance. This is what wide receiver looks like in a tight end’s body.
Very few tight ends in the league can make this play as seemingly effortless as Eifert. The head fake remains effective to make it look like he’s at the top of a normal hitch route. Upon immediately swiveling his head back, he sinks his hips and swims off the linebacker’s inside shoulder, whom is completely off-balanced now and not so much in tight coverage anymore. Upper body manipulation, quick and active hands, and a flexible and agile lower half; Eifert uses all of these in his route running and creates separation at an elite level in the entire league.
Ball Skills and Body Control
Going back to Notre Dame, Eifert’s biggest strength was out-bodying any defender in a contested or jump ball situation and using his size and leaping ability to come down with any pass in the area.
As the old cliche states, he’s too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. And Dalton trusts him because he doesn’t have to be completely precise when targeting him, and that trust leads to some very crucial conversions and scores.
In the slot in another 3x1 on another 3rd and short against Washington, Eifert is matched up against now one of the best slot corners in the game in Kendall Fuller. Fuller has help from his linebackers inside so he keeps his leverage on Eifert’s outside shoulder.
Underneath the route, Lafell runs a drag route that’s designed to attract the linebackers away from the middle of the field. The field side linebacker doesn’t bite and stays disciplined in his zone.
In Dalton’s eyes, the window on this throw is only open enough for a piece of paper to squeeze through. He has to lead Eifert almost far enough where the safety can make a play on the ball in order to get it over the linebacker.
That’s exactly what he does and Eifert makes an outstretched grab in traffic for the first-down.
The seam route has treated Dalton and Eifert very well these last five years. Even when it’s not open, Dalton sees the green light when Eifert has single coverage on a linebacker.
Initially altering the route after the linebacker makes contact within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, Eifert angles the route towards the very center between the hashes. Dalton knows that he can throw Eifert open by targeting his back shoulder, and does exactly that.
Eifert turns back, springs open his hips and snags the pass for 22 yards.
The levels of unfairness in this play are otherworldly. To be able to release off the attempted jam like a seasoned receiver, which allows him to in turn stack the slot defender at the catch point, and then climb the torso of the defender and come down with the pass that was aimed at the back helmet of the defender is all sorts of remarkable.
With the defender’s back turned, Eifert has to make sure not to jump to early to tip off when the pass is coming in and give the defender the second he needs to launch his hands up in desperation. He waits until the very last moment to make his leap and reach all the way over defender’s shoulders.
Less than two minutes remaining against the defending world champions Seahawks and arguably the best defense in the league in the league; Eifert slips by one of the best safeties in the game in Kam Chancellor and makes one of the best catches of his career, if not the best.
On a simple corner route, Eifert establishes inside leverage against Chancellor off the snap so his route remains unimpeded. He’s able to stack Chancellor at the top of the stem and makes his break using a speed cut towards the numbers away from the single high safety Earl Thomas.
At this moment, Dalton throws the ball up for grabs. Chancellor can’t play this any better and the only way Eifert can make a play on the ball is by doing exactly what he did. He had to react so quick that the ball almost goes through his hands, but that ball wasn’t touching the ground.
The 2015 and 2016 seasons gave us 21 games of Eifert, along with 81 receptions, 1009 yards and 18 touchdowns, which ranked first amongst all tight ends in that timeframe. Eifert showed he is more than a top-tier tight end, he’s a swiss army knife in the whole passing game.
He can get yards after the catch underneath, he can separate from slot defenders on intermediate route concepts, he can out-body outside cornerbacks on posts and slants. And no one can hope to contain him near the end zone.
Eifert is pretty close to being matchup proof. He’s not quite at Rob Gronkowski’s level of dominance at the catch point or Travis Kelce’s expertise as a route runner, but the only matchup Eifert has yet to consistently beat is the one against himself.
Injuries are the only reason he did not reset the tight end market this offseason, and why he had to wait for a second contract until after his first expired. But when he’s on the field, he can do things that Kroft or C.J. Uzomah simply can’t, at least not at the consistency that Eifert performs at.
In his third year, Kroft was a productive staple in the Bengals offense. Accounting for 42 receptions, 404 yards and seven touchdowns, he made his living being a safety valve for Dalton and a reliable goal-line target. He had his moments going up against tight man coverage and generating yards after the catch, but he’s not quite the athlete Eifert is and still needs work coming out of his breaks and finishing routes through contact.
He’s the ideal compliment to Eifert, but just can’t replicate all that Eifert is on his own. If he receives a contract extension sometime this summer, the structure and monetary details will likely reflect that.
The pieces seem to be in play for the Bengals to try and come close to that supremacy on offense they had in 2015. If Eifert avoids the injury list for most of the year like he did that season, it’ll go a long way into making that happen.