Kirkpatrick must seize unique opportunity

CINCINNATI -- This is exactly what every young professional football player dreams about when he enters the NFL; getting the opportunity to replace a proven veteran, and helping keep the team afloat until the veteran comes back.

Dre Kirkpatrick, the Cincinnati Bengals' second-year backup cornerback, is in that very position this week.

With Monday's report from ESPN's Chris Mortensen that two-time Pro Bowler Terence Newman will miss this week's game against the Steelers and possibly the two after it with an MCL sprain, Kirkpatrick's opportunity to shine has come. While the young defensive back certainly doesn't wish injury on any of his teammates, he does want them to know he can fill their shoes more than adequately.

If he wants to help the Bengals finish off their goals of winning out the remainder of their schedule and entering the playoffs with a high seeding, he has to seize this opportunity.

On the horizon for Kirkpatrick is an chance to prove his slowly shrinking line of naysayers and doubters wrong. It's a line that rightfully swelled following Cincinnati's preseason loss at Dallas back in August. That night, he was flagged twice for pass interference, was burned in coverage, and generally looked lost on the field. Some fans were calling for him to be cut, others were questioning whether the Bengals were smart to select the University of Alabama product with the 17th overall pick in the 2012 draft.

Already they had concerns about his health, after he was forced to the injured reserve with a knee injury at the end of last season. Those concerns were exacerbated this season when a hamstring injury kept him out of the Week 3 and 4 games against Green Bay and Cleveland, respectively.

Since returning in Week 5, Kirkpatrick has gradually been given more playing time, and he has done well with it.

"We’ve got a lot of good guys on this team. We don’t have any guys that are not top-notch guys," veteran cornerback Adam Jones said. "These guys work hard in practice. Even on scout team. They make it hard for the offense. When you see those guys working hard and making interceptions [in practice] against a top-10 offense, that kind of puts it in your mind that these guys are ready to go."

Cincinnati's offense ranked 10th in the league entering Monday night's Dallas-Chicago game.

Over the past nine games, Kirkpatrick has played 100 of the 102 snaps he has totaled this season. All but one of his 12 tackles have come in that stretch, as did his first career interception. He picked off a Philip Rivers pass last week against San Diego.

Back in late October when Kirkpatrick first got on the field as veteran corner Leon Hall's replacement, defensive backs coach Mark Carrier said he was detecting positive changes in Kirkpatrick's practice habits and demeanor.

"It's amazing, and he'll be the first one to tell you that when he's healthy, he can go out there and play," Carrier said. "Everyone's time comes, and he knew his time was coming soon."

That time is here again. With the Bengals in the middle of a playoff push and missing two of their best cornerbacks, they are looking to the young player to step up and play like he's been starting the whole time. If he does, he could end up playing a vital role in assisting the Bengals' efforts in securing a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage.