Bengals seem to be expanding Eifert's role

CINCINNATI -- One of the points of emphasis the Cincinnati Bengals had this offseason revolved around figuring out how to get their tight ends more involved in the passing game, in hopes of boosting the physical profile of the overall offense.

Specifically, the hope has been to come up with ways to turn Tyler Eifert into more of a go-to pass-catcher than he was last season.

It seems clear at the start of their first week of preseason games that the Bengals may have found a few methods that will help them expand Eifert's role.

Look no further than Saturday's scrimmage for evidence.

"He's done a really good job," quarterback Andy Dalton said.

Dalton was 17-for-20, collecting approximately 200 yards on his completions during the workout at Paul Brown Stadium. Of those 200 yards, about 120 of them went to Eifert, who caught six passes in a variety of ways and in all kinds of scenarios. Twice he went long either from an inside seam route or during a straight "Go" route as an outside receiver. Both catches resulted in gains of 35 or more yards. One of them probably would have ended in a touchdown had officials not marked down a possible TD. With players only in shoulder pads, there was no tackling, and referees were guessing about where contact may have occurred. On the 41-yard catch in question, Eifert likely would have run through any possible tackle and scooted another 7 yards into the end zone.

Along with the longer routes, Eifert was targeted for a few shorter plays, including drags and out patterns. He caught all six of the passes that went his way. But it hasn't only been in the simulated games where Eifert has excelled. He's performed well all training camp and has been among Dalton's favorite passing options.

"We feel like we get looks and matchups with him, and he makes big plays," Dalton said. "That's what he did in college. It's what we expect of him now. He's been in the right spots and we're getting looks that we want and we're hitting them."

A first-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, Eifert had high expectations when he arrived last summer. They were so high when the regular season started that he was targeted 35 times through the first eight games of 2013. In the opener at Chicago, Eifert caught all five of Dalton's passes that were directed to him. Paired with Jermaine Gresham, who also caught all five of his targets, Eifert's Week 1 performance sent a clear message that the Bengals were high on incorporating a two-tight end offense.

Across the latter half of last season, though, the Bengals veered slightly from that focus. After targeting Eifert nearly three dozen times in the first eight games of the season, the Bengals threw to him just 26 times in their last nine games, including the regular-season finale that both Eifert and Gresham missed with injuries and the playoff loss when he was targeted twice but had no catches.

Eifert finished the season with 39 catches for 445 yards and two touchdowns.

Perhaps the best way to explain the departure from the tight end focus is to use these two words: Giovani Bernard. The rookie running back became a more valued and more reliable piece of the offense as last season wore on, and his performance in both the rushing and receiving games seemed to take some touches away from the tight ends. Their late-season injuries also threw off some of the rhythm and allowed other players to get more involved in those last few games.

Based on what he's seen since last training camp, Dalton has no reason to believe he won't be throwing to Eifert a lot this season.

"He's been in the right spot," Dalton said. "He's so talented with the ball in the air. He's got great ball skills and runs really good routes. That's why he's been able to get open and make big plays."

When asked to explain why he thinks Eifert has been a dependable option the first few days of this camp, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson shifted the credit to Dalton and Eifert.

"We're doing a good job of finding him," Jackson said. "Our progressions are taking us to him. Sometimes he's the first choice, sometimes he's the second choice and things have worked out that way."

Maybe the offense has simply worked out in Eifert's favor so far. Maybe. It's more likely, though, that there's a push to get the ball into the hands of the bigger-bodied playmaker who can catch it and collect first downs. If Eifert keeps doing what he has done to this point in camp, not only will he make himself look good this season, he'll keep making his quarterback look brilliant as well.