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Bengals tight end Eifert emerges as reliable target

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Tight end Tyler Eifert has become one of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's favorite targets. He has 28 receptions, including a team-high six touchdowns.

CINCINNATI — There were more than a few fans who complained when the Cincinnati Bengals opted for tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

After all, the Bengals had a solid tight end in Jermaine Gresham and Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. What they needed, it seemed, was help on a then-troubled offensive line.

Eifert, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury in last year’s season opener, has become both a fan and fantasy league favorite with the Bengals off to a 6-0 start. Cincinnati has built a 21⁄2-game lead on the Steelers in the AFC North, partly because Eifert has put up impressive numbers.

Eifert’s 28 catches for 342 yards are second only to Green’s 35 and 531. Also, he has a team-high six touchdowns, which is second-best among all NFL tight ends.

“With our offense, we have a lot of talented players across the board, so it makes it hard for teams to game plan us,” Eifert said. “If you double A.J., we have other guys who can step up and make plays. We’re unselfish, and we don’t care who makes the plays.”

Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has far more flexibility and options than he did a year ago when the Steelers swept the Bengals in the regular season. He uses a near-perfect mix of run and pass to make the offense less predictable.

The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Eifert is a more complete receiving threat than the departed Gresham, who totaled six catches and two touchdowns against the Steelers last season.

“(Eifert) is a big component of their offense and their success this year,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He is building a great rapport with (quarterback Andy) Dalton. He is a big and easy target to throw to.”

Opposing tight ends have compiled some alarming numbers against the Steelers: 44 catches, 465 yards and six touchdowns — including three by New England’s Rob Gronkowski. Only five NFL teams have allowed more receiving yards to tight ends this season than the Steelers. Only two have allowed more receptions and one team (Raiders) has given up more touchdowns to the position.

Eifert presents a perplexing challenge. If the Steelers opt to double Green and commit a safety to running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, then the third-year tight end will probably draw man coverage with a linebacker or safety.

“It’s nice to have a guy like him with his size, and who can run like he can, and he has a great feel for the game,” Dalton said of Eifert. “He can catch anything. Just to have him back and have him out there, we feel like he makes this offense a whole lot better.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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