NFL News & Analysis

Cincinnati Bengals CB Eli Apple: Does his play back up the talk?

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Eli Apple (20) resets between plays in the third quarter of of the NFL Week 11 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. The Bengals won 37-30. Cincinnati Bengals At Pittsburgh Steelers Week 11

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Eli Apple has been doing more than his fair share of trash-talking during his team's playoff run, and while the Bengals are certainly backing up his words, is his individual play?

Apple, a former first-round draft pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, was selected at No. 10 by the New York Giants thanks to his man coverage skills at Ohio State.

Those skills never quite translated to the NFL, and he has now played for four different teams, settling in as a starter for the Bengals over the past couple of years as they have enjoyed team-level success.

Over his time with Cincinnati, Apple has earned just a 55.4 PFF coverage and allowed a 101.5 passer rating into his coverage. He has just two interceptions but has been beaten for 11 touchdowns.

While rookie Sauce Gardner led the NFL with an 88.5 PFF grade at cornerback this season, Apple’s 53.3 mark ranks 68th at a position where only 64 players start. 

Apple does have 22 forced incompletions over those two seasons starting, which is the same as players such as Asante Samuel Jr. — ball-hawking cornerbacks that do influence passes regularly — but he is often beaten to offset those good plays. Over that same time, Apple has been in primary coverage for 63 “open” targets, the sixth most in the league. With Cincinnati’s playoff runs, Apple has obviously played more than most cornerbacks, but even when looking at open-target rate (40.6%), he is closer to the wrong end of the scale than the right one.

This season, Apple has surrendered 732 yards in coverage, with a Week 13 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs being the only occasion he did not allow a catch at all.

It’s not even possible to look at his postseason displays as evidence that he turns it on when the games matter most. Last year, his PFF coverage grade in the postseason came in at 57.3, and it stands at 53.2 this season. He has allowed 147 yards and a 136.5 passer rating across his two playoff performances this year, despite one of those games being against the Baltimore Ravens‘ poor passing offense and the other taking place in the snow in Buffalo.

Apple is doing plenty of talking, but it is the Bengals' collective rather than his own play that is backing it up right now.

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