It is almost as if the Jets are facing the Patriots for a second straight week — but perhaps a bigger and better version this time around.
The Jets defense matched up last week against tight end Rob Gronkowski, arguably the most dominant player at his position in the NFL.
He finished the game with eight receptions for 114 yards in what was his first game of the season, and a warning of what a big tight end can do if he has a quarterback who can deliver him the ball.
And, now the Bengals’ duo of Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham will test the Jets linebackers and secondary on Sunday much like Gronkowski did a week ago.
“Both of them have the size, length [and] all that kind of stuff. But in the past, certainly, we went against New England when they had [Aaron] Hernandez and Gronk. That’s about as bad as it gets. But they’re starting to use this kid Eifert a little bit out of the backfield,” head coach Rex Ryan said. “They’ve ran some strike passes as a fullback, ran him in the flat, ran him vertical, flexed him out wide like a receiver and that’s really what he did at Notre Dame, as well. Dee Milliner and him had a pretty good battle that [BCS] championship game [last year]. But clearly, he’s more of a receiving threat right now than he is a blocker and that takes time.”
Ryan likened Eifert to Todd Heap, a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Ravens who finished his career with the Cardinals.
The emergence of the pass-catching tight end is a matchup problem for the Jets. If they pinch in their safeties, as they did last week to provide bigger, more mobile coverage, they risk being beaten over the top. If they don’t bring in the big bodies from the back end, they could give up yards over the middle.
It was something Patriots quarterback Tom Brady attempted to do last week to the Jets, but his young and relatively untested wide receivers were unable to get open down the field.
The scouting report on Gresham and Eifert — who are two of the top-five receiving targets on the Bengals this year and have combined for 50 catches — is that they are both complete players.
“Gresham’s pretty big; he has a physical aspect to his game. He can block, but he’s a receiver as well,” cornerback Darrin Walls said. “[Eifert is] my ex-teammate [at Notre Dame]. He’s a good player. Tyler is a good player. He’s a receiving tight end — a down-the-field guy.”
Gresham is 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds and is difficult to contain on underneath routes. Eifert, who is one inch shorter and weighs 10 pounds less, has better hands, making him a threat to stretch the field.
Safety Antonio Allen sagged in coverage on Gronkowski early in the third quarter to make a pick-six that turned the tide of the game. The Jets know what Allen showed on that play is the ticket to matching up against the Bengals big tight ends. In all likelihood, underneath coverage won’t work because they will always lose the jump ball to the bigger tight ends.
“As a defensive back, you want to be in the best position as possible and that is on top. That is the dominant position. You can control the receiver more,” cornerback Darrin Walls said. “There’s no perfect way to do it. You just want to attack the ball and I think last week showed that. We attacked the ball more and that’s something we want to do more and will continue to work on doing more.”
It won’t be easy, that much is clear.
“Both of them are receiving threats [and] both of them are used in blocking situations,” linebacker Demario Davis said. “You have to be ready to cover them though in any situation.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.