As they brace for Sunday's confrontation (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium against one of the NFL's greatest players in Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, the Bengals have reams of video to study.
In the six games since the bye, they have seen all sorts of combinations of that monstrous hybrid player Kelce embodies as the modern tight end:
- A Pro Bowler and 1,000-yard receiver, the Ravens' Mark Andrews, got them last week when he converted 10 targets for eight catches, 125 yards and a touchdown in the Bengals' 41-21 win that cut it to 34-21 early in the fourth quarter.
- Two weeks before that, a future Hall-of-Famer, the 49ers' two-way George Kittle destroyed them in regulation and overtime of a 26-23 loss on 13 catches out of 15 targets for 151 yards as well as with his signature blocking.
- Two weeks before that, an up-and-coming Andrews-type, Steelers rookie Pat Freiemuth, scored the Steelers' only touchdown at the end of the Bengals' 41-10 win and caught all four of his targets for 40 yards.
- The week before that, the most athletic of all of them, the Raiders' Darren Waller, might have thrown the biggest scare into them with 116 catches on seven of his eight targets in a game the Bengals won going away in the fourth quarter, 32-13.
But Kelce is the goal standard as he comes in with his sixth straight 1,000-yard season despite missing last week on the COVID list.
"We've put corners on them, put safeties on them, doubled them. We kind of tried our hand in everything," said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo before Thursday's practice. "These guys they are the new breed in the NFL, Darren Waller, all of them. They are a handful. We are aware of it. We are taking different approaches each week to it. We just have to be aware of where these guys are. Do a good job of staying in coverage when we are assigned to them."
Anarumo isn't kidding. According to Pro Football Focus, he's put everybody but Who Dey on the tight ends. He had seven different guys on Andrews (three safeties, two cornerbacks and two linebackers) and the same combination of positions against Kittle while four different players (two safeties, two cornerbacks) covered Freiemuth and six different defenders were assigned to Waller at various points.
Here's the other common thread. The Bengals won three of those four games and the only one they lost was in overtime. Largely because they held down everybody else. No other receiver had more than 95 yards. And that just may the best you can do against these matchup nightmares.
Look at Kelce's last two 100-yard days. In early November against the Raiders, he had eight catches for 119 yards. Manageable. But not when running back Darrell Williams caught 101 in a 41-14 win. And then back on Dec. 16, Kelce wrecked the Chargers on 191 yards, which you absolutely can't let happen. But burner wide receiver Tyreek Hill made it worse with 148 more in a 34-28 win.
"The way the Chiefs use Kelce is unique. He has an unbelievable knack of being kind of slinky and slippery and finding his way in the zones," Anarumo said. "He may have a 10-yard in-route called but it may end up being a six-yard curl route because that's what he read and it's in line with what the quarterback is reading. So, just his ability to find all the little holes in the zones and how they use them. Every time he catches the ball, like those other two, they can score a touchdown. We have to do a great job of tackling all of them, but especially him."
The problem with Kelce is while you know he's not a threat as a blocker, he's just so huge (6-5, 256 pounds) and moves so well, he's just plain hard to get around.
"Trust your technique. That's the thing this week, technique and discipline on your landmarks," said strong safety Vonn Bell. "He's not going maul you, he's going to finesse and get around you and use his body. He'll try to uncover, you have to have an instant play clock in your head. He can work the pocket."
And there's the thing that puts Kelce in a class by himself. He has stunning chemistry with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the most instinctive player in the league. (At the moment, because the Bengals' Joe Burrow is fast in the rear view mirror.)
"He's the top of the top, for sure," Bell said of Kelce. "His savviness, his finesse on how he gets open, how he can read defenses and find the soft spot in zones, really uncover well when he's covered and just working back in phase with the quarterback.
"He always has that relentless motor and he's one of the heartbeats of the team, too. One of his go-to guys, his security blanket so he's always going to find his way and Mahomes' vision point down the field. They know they have speed guys on the outside who are going to take the top off the defense but he just works underneath in the intermediate game. That's why you see him thrive in the league."
Maybe the Bengal who knows Kelce best is their own tight end, C.J. Uzomah. He knows him from an offseason junket known as Tight End U. Uzomah's big takeaway is how smart he is.
"I think even getting to hear him and talk to him and kind of listen to what he has to say about how he approaches routes and coverages," Uzomah said this week. "And he's like, 'Yeah, maybe it's supposed to be a 10-yard corner, but I know that Pat has a three -step drop so I can break it off at four steps if I need to and be in a spot that's close enough to where he knows I'm going to be around that area.' And things like that. The way that he's able to analyze defenses is very… it's meticulous."
It's going to be interesting to see how much Anarumo can a.) use middle linebacker Logan Wilson after missing the last three games with a shoulder injury and b.) if he'll try him on Kelce.
Before he got hurt, Wilson didn't cover Waller or Freiemuth, according to PFF. But when he was out, the 49ers went after linebacker Germaine Pratt (PFF said he allowed 60 of Kittle's yards) and he gave up Andrews' touchdown. But Pratt is having a very good year and the Bengals are going to miss him Sunday because he's on the COVID list.
That's the thing. These guys are tough matchups for everybody.
"They are all great, let's start with that," Anarumo said. "They are all great."