Tyler Kroft has been stepped up before and says he’s ready to do it again.
The fourth-year Cincinnati Bengals tight end saw an increased role last year when Tyler Eifert underwent season-ending surgery after playing just two games in 2017, and now he will be called upon once more after Eifert broke his ankle Sundayin a 37-36 win at Atlanta.
Eifert landed awkwardly while catching a 2-yard pass from Andy Dalton on the second play from scrimmage in the third quarter. He finished the game with four catches for 38 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown in the first quarter for the Bengals’ first score.
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“Obviously, it’s really unfortunate what happened, and we’re all feeling for him, but we always preach ‘next man up’ here so C.J. (Uzomah) and I will do what we can to keep the team moving,” Kroft said.
“I don’t think I look at myself any differently,” he added. “I know they are going to be expecting more from C.J. and I, which I feel we’ve stepped up in the past, and we just have to continue to do that.”
Kroft played just 32 percent of the snaps on offense the first two games last year before Eifert went down, but finished the season at 85.8 percent. He grabbed a career-high 404 yards receiving and seven touchdowns in 2017 and has four catches for 36 yards through four games this year.
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Eifert has been limited by serious injuries throughout his six-year career in the NFL, appearing in just 10 games over the past two seasons, but Kroft said he has learned a lot from the 2013 first-round draft pick — most notably how to use his eyes and body language to “sell certain things (to the defense) and to be able to get open on routes,” he said. Eifert played 13 games during Kroft’s rookie season in 2015.
“I hope to be as effective in the passing game as Ty was because we all know what he can do,” Kroft said.
Losing Eifert to yet another injury after he worked so hard to return from back, neck, shoulder, knee and ankle injuries previously was tough on everyone.
However, no one seems to have any doubt Eifert will be back at some point.
“It’s rough, especially over the years he’s dealt with some things and people try to say he’s not tough and stuff, but it’s real things that are happening to him,” Kroft said. “It’s not little things keeping him out. That’s what’s a shame, but he’s a fighter, and I’m confident he will get himself back.”
Head coach Marvin Lewis somberly called the situation “a shame” for Eifert in his press conference Monday.
“As I told him yesterday, ‘You’re good at this,’” Lewis said. “He said, ‘I do it all the time, don’t I? I really do it the right way.’ He’s got to fight back. But it’s a shame.”
Eifert, despite being limited in the spring and preseason, already was making an impact this season. He had 15 catches for 179 yards through four games, and after his injury, the Bengals offense suffered a lull. Dalton was sacked the next play and Kevin Huber’s punt was blocked after that.
Cincinnati wouldn’t get another touchdown until the final drive when A.J. Green caught the game-winner with seven seconds left.
“When you lose a great player, a lot is going to change, so we have to figure that out,” Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “We obviously all feel terrible for Tyler personally, and there is no doubt that having him for these last four games was different than my first two years here where we barely had him. You can see typically when he’s in the game, people play nickel defense against us. They figure that out pretty quickly. It takes away a big weapon, and we’re just going to have to count on everyone else to take on some of that burden. That’s the NFL. We feel terrible for Tyler, but they are not going to delay this next game, so we’ve got to go.”