When the Cleveland Browns host the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday’s Battle of Ohio, they will have to contend not only with a Pro Bowl receiver in A.J. Green, but also, a pair of dynamic, play-making tight ends in Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert, whom the Bengals selected with a first-round draft pick back in April.
In three games this season, Gresham and Eifert rank second and fourth, respectively, on the team in receptions. Gresham has 15 catches for 128 yards, and Eifert has turned his nine receptions into 120 yards.
“They’ve got two, big, athletic tight ends,” safety T.J. Ward said. “We’ve just got to play our game, play physical, get them off their routes, and try to flush the quarterback, get to the quarterback, like we’ve been doing, and play tight coverage on the back end.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I do, cover these tight ends and keep them to one or no catches. (Eifert’s) a tall, athletic tight end who likes to get downfield. They like to use him in the pass game, like they have used Gresham in the past, but they’re both capable of doing the same thing.”
Cameron leads the way with 20 catches for 269 yards and four touchdowns, and his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame proves to be comparable to both Gresham (6-5, 260) and Eifert (6-6, 250).
“We’ve had battles in camp and OTAs, and that’s kind of what the league has turned into, athletic tight ends, more receiving-type tight ends, so we’re pretty much going to go against one every week,” Ward said. “Cameron definitely prepares us well in practice.”
Cameron, Eifert and Gresham represent a change in the type of players NFL coaches and front-office decision-makers look for in building up their corps of tight ends. With that change has come an assault on NFL record books as tight ends like New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and New England’s Rob Gronkowski have become frequent targets for their respective quarterbacks.
“The league has changed from a fullback-type guy to a U-back,” Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “Now, they’re just tight ends. They flex them out, and they do pose challenges. They’re Jordan Cameron-type guys. They’re wide receivers in tight ends’ bodies. It’s bringing a new dimension to the game.
“The DBs have changed from the small guys to the bigger guys. You just tend to match what the other side of the ball is doing. They pose problems for people because they’re so big. They’re faster than the linebackers, but they’re bigger than the safeties. It’s a hybrid position that everybody covets right now. They’re in the mold of New England, in the mold of Detroit, where one’s a bigger blocking tight end that’s still athletic and one’s a hybrid speed, out-in-space guy. It’s really the model New England has been so successful with.”
Along with the physical changes from both tight ends and defensive backs, Horton has noticed a change in preparation by those charged with covering football’s newest playmakers. And that was never more evident to the long-time defensive coach than when he came to Cleveland and started working with Ward.
“T.J. is better than I thought,” Horton said. “I knew he was a tough guy, but he’s so much brighter. I’m pleasantly surprised by how much information he can absorb. He’s like a sponge. He spits it back out, and he’s growing too.
“He’s starting to understand the nuances of the defense, and he will get better. What you see in the next quarter of the season, hopefully, is the defense understanding what we’re trying to do. I can expand the package and do more things.”