Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter called it “unfortunate” the Cincinnati Bengals have been hit so hard by injuries at the tight end position, but he doesn’t feel sorry for them.
“Everyone in the NFL deals with injuries,” he said Wednesday in a conference call with the media in Cincinnati, ahead of Sunday’s matchup between the Bengals and the Bucs at Paul Brown Stadium.
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The truth is, it’s a blessing for every opposing team not to have to deal with the three-tight end packages that made Cincinnati’s offense so difficult to scheme for and defend at the beginning of the season.
The Bengals (4-3) have lost three of the four tight ends they began the season with, most recently placing second-year player Mason Schreck on injured reserve Tuesday after he injured his left knee Sunday at Kansas City. Tyler Eifert broke his ankle in a Week 4 win at Atlanta, and Tyler Kroft suffered a foot injury against the Dolphins in Week 5 and is stuck in a boot for at least the next two weeks, possibly longer.
A fourth tight end, Cethan Carter, was placed on injured reserve after hurting his shoulder in the preseason.
“We’re not even halfway through the season and we’ve got four guys down,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “That’s something at any position I don’t think I’ve ever seen.”
Uzomah joked that he’s getting extra massages and treatment to make sure he doesn’t get hurt. Bubble wrap might be more helpful at this point.
Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis said the carousel of tight ends makes the offensive coaches’ jobs more challenging, but it’s something they just have to deal with and overcome. Uzomah had the team’s lone touchdown in Sunday’s 45-10 loss to Kansas City and has been solid stepping up as the top tight end in Eifert’s absence, but two newcomers come in behind him.
The Bengals signed rookie Jordan Franks (6-4, 240) off the practice squad to replace Schreck on Tuesday and picked up third-year player Matt Lengel (6-foot-7, 266 pounds) off Houston’s practice squad to fill Kroft’s place two weeks ago.
Lengel had been with the Bengals practice squad in 2015 and part of 2016 but had to learn a whole new playbook that Bill Lazor developed ahead of his first full season as offensive coordinator, and Kroft said that wasn’t easy to learn even for the guys that had been around all offseason.
Franks signed with Cincinnati as an undrafted college free agent out of the University of Central Florida this year and played in all four preseason games, recording two catches for 19 yards and one tackle on special teams, before he was pushed to the practice squad with final roster cuts. He expects to make his NFL debut Sunday.
“Day 1, coach (Jonathan) Hayes preached that any of us can play so prepare as you’re a starter the whole year,” Franks said. “That’s what I’ve been doing and I get my shot this week, so I’ve got to take advantage of it and help my team out.”
Kroft said he hopes to be back before the end of the season, but in the meantime he has faith in Franks’ ability to step in. Uzomah believes he will surprise some people.
“People are going to see Jordan Franks and be like, ‘Dang, where did this guy come from?’” Uzomah said. “It’s definitely a blow having your core guys down — your Pro Bowl tight end, two tight ends that could start on other teams.”
Cincinnati has grown accustomed to being without its Pro Bowl tight end the past few years with Eifert dealing with a variety of injuries throughout his career, but he had worked hard to get back on the field to start the year and was looking good before his gruesome ankle injury at Atlanta.
Before his injury and then the subsequent ailments to Kroft and Schreck, the Bengals were using some three tight end packages that proved effective in helping the offense get down the field. Those are almost non-existent now.
Quarterback Andy Dalton said the tight end position is an important one for him because of the mismatches it creates with the defense. He has always been confident throwing to his tight ends knowing they can muscle their way through to make a catch.
However, the depleted position group isn’t the only reason for the offense’s struggles in recent weeks, Dalton noted. Kansas City held the Bengals to 15 first downs and a season-low 10 points on Sunday.
“There’s other things that are involved,” Dalton said. “We had a good thing going with all three of those tight ends. Injuries happen, and we have to adjust and change some of the things we’re doing. Obviously, that was effective for us.”
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