It would be easy to draw conclusions from Friday’s injury update that benefit the Pittsburgh Steelers for their upcoming road matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. Seeing wide receiver A.J. Green listed as doubtful (or out as ESPN has reported) for Sunday’s game might give Steelers fans a sense of optimism, and rightfully so. But the Bengals have created a receiving corps that have become multi-faceted and not heavily dependent upon one man.
While Green is head and shoulders above his teammates in targets, receptions and receiving yards, he is well-complemented by two other wide receivers – Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd – and two tight ends – Tyler Eifert and C.J. Uzomah – who each average at least 11 yards per catch. LaFell and Eifert both have scored five touchdowns apiece ahead of Green’s four. But what has made this group the 11th-best passing offense in the league is the ability of each of those five to thrive in their individual roles. While the combination of Boyd, LaFell and Eifert might not be as individually talented as Green, they each present separate matchup problems for opponents.
Boyd has quickly grown into his role as the slot receiver in his rookie season, and Andy Dalton’s confidence in him is evident on the stat sheet. In his first seven games, Boyd was targeted 31 times and caught 20 passes for 245 yards. But in his last six games, he’s been targeted 40 times with 28 catches for 281 yards.
In Week 6 against New England, Boyd averaged 19.75 yards on his four catches, each of them going for first downs. On this early fourth quarter play, Boyd gets inside positioning on Logan Ryan at the line of scrimmage, and Dalton leads Boyd right down the seam. Despite the tight coverage by Ryan, Boyd goes up and makes the contested catch for a 30-yard gain.
LaFell has quietly become a reliable red zone threat over the past couple seasons. Of his last 12 touchdowns dating back to last season with the New England Patriots, LaFell has caught nine of those from inside the 20-yard line, including four out of five this season.
During the loss to the Patriots in October, LaFell is matched up outside against Malcolm Butler during this third-quarter touchdown. LaFell pinches to the outside of the formation, showing the single coverage outside. He sells his route to the outside, causing Butler to hesitate, and then bends along the back of the end zone. Dalton puts his throw right on target, and LaFell makes the catch while getting both feet in bounds to score.
What makes Eifert dangerous is his ability to make plays in both sub packages and in multiple tight end formations. Last week against Cleveland, the Bengals use “13” personnel (one running back, three tight ends) in the red zone on 2nd & short. Eifert goes in motion across the formation, matching him up with linebacker Demario Davis. After selling the inside move, Eifert breaks outside on the flag route, Dalton spots the mismatch and finds him for the easy touchdown pass.
The Bengals have gone the past three weeks without their biggest offensive weapon in the lineup, but it hasn’t hindered them from using their versatility and depth in the passing game. Expect them to utilize each of the remaining skill position players in situations that give them opportunity to succeed.