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Once 'injury prone,' Tyler Eifert is now Bengals' 'iron man'

CINCINNATI -- As a former first-round pick who struggled to stay on the field, Tyler Eifert endured the wrath of frustrated Cincinnati Bengals fans his first two years.

Shoulder, neck and knee issues affected some of his play-making ability as a rookie late in the 2013 season. With him appearing in every game but the regular-season finale and the wild-card round playoff loss, the nagging injuries started earning him a dubious label: injury prone.

When Eifert became seriously hurt last season, dislocating his right elbow in the season opener, the complaints about what many considered his brittle body amplified. He heard and saw them, too.

But now that Eifert has finally become exactly what the Bengals envisioned him being when he was drafted -- a key cog in their diverse, prolific and multifaceted offense -- the tight end has become a nearly every-down player. The complaints have been replaced with praise.

"Oh, now I'm an iron man?" Eifert said, laughing at a reporter's question about his high snap count this season. "It's just funny you would say that because I was 'injury prone' last year. Now I'm an iron man. But I'm just trying to take it one game at a time, stay healthy, help us win and good things will happen."

Good things have been happening for the Bengals as their 6-0 record entering Sunday's division game at Pittsburgh attests. Eifert has been a big reason why.

After averaging just 43.5 snaps as a rookie in 2013, he's appearing on 61 plays per game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of the 382 offensive plays the Bengals have had, Eifert has missed just 16 all year.

He's made the most of it, catching 28 passes (ranking second on the team behind A.J. Green's 35) for 342 yards and a team-leading six touchdowns. Only three NFL receivers and one other tight end have that many receiving scores. That other tight end is Rob Gronkowski.

So why has Eifert been so valuable to the Bengals, and why has he played so much? He thinks it has something to do with how good his body has finally felt.

"Structure-wise, everything has felt 100 percent," Eifert said about his healed elbow. "I've taken a lot more reps than my rookie year, and last year, obviously. I can definitely feel it. It's just kind of like being back in college and even high school where you're kind of hurting on Monday and even Tuesday. But when Wednesday rolls around, you're getting ready to go again. We do a good job here of making sure we're good and fresh for Sundays."

As Eifert spoke, he smiled. He seemed happy to discuss how he was managing the midweek, postgame pain.

"It's kind of a good soreness," Eifert said. "I feel like I actually contribute to the game. I just try and play hard and play fast. I can't control injuries, soreness, all that. I just deal with that after the game. It's felt good to contribute and do things I've always been able to do and to actually do it has been fun."