Bengals' two-TE set already working well

CINCINNATI -- Before every game he has played since he was a fifth grader, Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert feels his stomach twist and contort itself into tight little knots.

"I get nervous before every game," the rookie said. "I don't know why. Just the competitiveness, I guess. You want to win, and you want to play well, and you expect a lot from yourself."

Like clockwork, minutes before his first game as a professional on Sunday afternoon in Chicago, the nerves got to him again. He was anxious. He was excited. He was ready to show the NFL why the Bengals made him their first pick in April's Draft.

He wasn't the only one eager to see how he would perform in his first regular-season game. His coaches were curious, too, primarily because with Eifert on the field it meant the Bengals were finally getting a chance to show off on the big stage the tweaked two-tight end setup they had hinted all offseason about using, and had flaunted at times during the preseason.

So far, so good.

If the Week 1 showing against the Bears was a tune-up for what's to come, Bengals fans maight want to strap themselves to their seats Monday night when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to Paul Brown Stadium.

In the opener, the Bengals completed a combined 10 passes to their two tight ends, Eifert and fourth-year veteran Jermaine Gresham. The pair also combined for 82 of quarterback Andy Dalton's 282 passing yards. Of the 35 receiving yards Gresham had, 29 came after the catch as he churned out multiple positive gains. In doing so, he picked up three first downs on his five receptions and forced three missed tackles.

"[Eifert] is everything we thought he would be, and we'll get more out of him," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "Jermaine took advantage of all of the reps that he had and the passes that came to him. He ran physical after the catch, blocked extremely well in the run game -- except for one time. Two solid performances. A-type performances by both of those guys."

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Cincinnati was in a two-tight end formation on 32 of its 55 plays against the Bears. That means on 58.2 percent of their plays, both Gresham and Eifert were on the field. The pair was joined by a third tight end, Orson Charles, on another eight plays. That means on 40 of their 55 plays (72.7 percent), the Bengals had more than one tight end on the field.

The way Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis sees it, that's a very good thing.

"It gives us different variations of things," Green-Ellis said. "If Tyler and Jermaine continue to catch balls, [defensive coordinators] have to make the decision on whether they want to play in base personnel or nickel, which will help us out. If they go to a nickel, then it will tip for us to run the ball, and if it's in base, then we can easily get one of the tight ends matched up on a linebacker."

With the physical and athletic advantage Gresham and Eifert have over most outside linebackers, that type of mismatch is precisely one the Bengals would like to create and exploit.

"I don't think there are many linebackers that can compete with the physicality and athleticism of our two or three tight ends," Green-Ellis said. "It gives us a lot of different variations of what we can all do. We can line up in slot, [have] two tight ends on the ball, can go outside, wide or in shotgun. It adds versatility to the offense."

Last season, the Bengals ranked 17th in Quarterback Rating (QBR) whenever they ran two-tight end sets that featured Gresham and Charles, who was a rookie last season. Although Cincinnati made the playoffs in 2012, so did nine other teams whose quarterbacks' two-tight end set QBRs ended up ranking in the top 10 of that statistical category. Through one game this season, Cincinnati ranks 11th in its two-tight end QBR, sporting a 76.2 rating.

The league average in those situations was 44.3 last week.

While the Bengals were set up in two-tight end formations last week, quarterback Dalton was 15-for-20 on 21 dropbacks (he was sacked once). Both of his interceptions came in those formations, as did both of his touchdowns. His 45-yard first-down pass to A.J. Green that set up one of the passing scores also came while the Bengals were sporting their two-tight end look.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is quick to dismiss claims that this two-tight end set is some new phenomenon for his team. Yes, Cincinnati has used the formation before, but it's clear that this time around, it should work well.

Here's what Lewis had to say Thursday about his top two tight ends:

"For years we tried to find a well-rounded tight end like we've got in Jermaine. ... In Jermaine, we feel like we got the total package. That's why we selected him when we did (10th overall in the 2010 draft). Tyler, when we were selecting (21st overall in 2013 draft), we felt like we were gaining a guy who already had incredible receiving skills and who would grow into the physical part of playing tight end. Coming in, he was better at that than I even expected, and that's a good thing. The game's not too big for him, he understands things and he does a great job of it. He's probably a little bit ahead of his time with things that he's very natural at. They've been a good compliment to each other. It's been great. In some ways, they both have learned things from each other.

"When you try to put a pick on a No. 1 draft pick, he's got to be the whole thing. And he's got to be a guy that strives to get your team where it needs to be, and that's to play championship football. He's got those qualities in him, and they keep coming to the forefront. For him, he's trying to make them more consistent, and we're trying to coach him through that."