Posted: 7:20 a.m.
For the second straight year, injuries at tight end have destroyed an offseason of planning for Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.
"We have to make some adjustments; we've got to do things that are more suited to the guys we have," Bratkowski said after Monday's practice.
What the Bengals knew when they saw Ben Utecht lifted into an ambulance with his fifth concussion a month ago became official Monday. They won't have their top two tight ends with Daniel Coats and rookie Chase Coffman replacing Reggie Kelly and Utecht. That means there are now 15 NFL games at the position as opposed to 203.
Bratkowski has wanted to expand the role of the tight end and use more double tight-end sets since Utecht signed as a free agent before the 2008 season. But Utecht's injuries have forced Bratkowski to just try and hold the point at the position's main role in the offense of blocking and now he has to do it with a guy that has done it for one year in Coats and a guy that has never done it in Coffman.
The first impact of the injuries is most likely going to be on the roster, where the Bengals are expected to keep two fullbacks instead of their customary one.
"The one good thing there is that we think we've got three guys that can play," Bratkowski said of Jeremi Johnson, Fui Vakapuna and Chris Pressley. "They won't be able to put their hand on the ground, but they'll be able to help in some formations."
Another impact is what happens to Coffman. The most prolific pass-catching tight end in NCAA history was supposed to learn the trade behind Kelly and Utecht. And he needed the time because he was not only coming off a broken foot that took him out of most of the spring workouts, he was learning a new position.
His brand of tight end didn't involve getting into a stance and blocking on the line. So he's not only had to fight through the mental strain of the Xs and Os, but the physical punishment and it's been a slow go. The coaches are trying not to wear him down, but he is.
"He's still developing," Bratkowski said. "He's got a long way to go and not a lot of time to get there."
Coffman had a wry smile over the weekend. A welcome respite with two straight off days on Friday and Saturday. He thought back to that stretch in training camp with Kelly and Utecht down where he and free agent rookie Darius Hill were getting all the snaps. And when the club did bring help in Matt Sherry, he was hurt within two days.
"It's a different game playing on the line of scrimmage," Coffman said. "The biggest difference is getting the technique down and doing it every single time. I've been staying in the tub, stretching, eating right, just trying to take care of my body."
Head coach Marvin Lewis thinks he's getting adjusted.
"He keeps getting back and being able to practice once a day and being comfortable," Lewis said. "A little more comfortable is a good thing, having been a little banged up like he was in camp early on.”
Coffman said his receiving skills haven't been affected by the switch and he's been staying after practices to catch balls. But he admits his foot still isn't quite 100 percent.
"I'm just making sure I'm doing the (blocking) technique right every time," he said, recalling tight end coach Jon Hayes' incessant instructions. "Foot placement. Hand placement. Head up. Stay low."
Kelly was such a huge figure in pass protecting for Carson Palmer and while the coaches think Coats is big enough and tough enough to give them some of that, he just doesn't have the experience. But Coats did get exposed to blocking from another perspective last year at fullback.
“He played both spots last year and they’re almost interchangeable in some of the things that we do," Lewis said. "I think there’s an experience factor there’s obviously a thing with pass protection, some of those things that he had to continue to work hard at. His versatility has been a good thing.”
The lack of experience in pass protection at tight end may have had a hand in some of the 11 sacks the Bengals have allowed in preseason, but Bratkowski said they haven't been a major reason.
"It's always a combination," he said. "There were one or two that fell on the tight end, but they just didn't make an adjustment when need be."
More fallout from the injuries: The Bengals are faced with a big decision when it comes to the roster. Do they go get another big blocking tight end at the Cutdown and invest teaching him the offense? Or do they stick with just two tight ends and go heavy in, say, the secondary?
They've already got a big guy with some experience in J.P. Foschi who has already been in the offense for two weeks. But maybe they keep only two because they simply can't use the number of two tight end sets they had hoped to when they scripted out the season in the spring.
"We still have to do some," Bratkowski said of double tights. "Fortunately we have some depth at the fullback position."