As the Bengals built their team in the offseason, the pundits insisted that head coach Marvin Lewis had the deepest of his 11 teams and that Cincinnati had one of the deepest depth charts in the NFL. Everyone now seems vindicated looking at the league stats heading into Week 15 that came out Monday morning with the Bengals and Saints the only teams ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense in a week Cincinnati can clinch the AFC North title.
» The Bengals have played the last five games without their two best players on defense, two-time Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall, and in the last two have knocked off elite quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck.
» The Bengals have won the last two games with backup guards after losing left guard Clint Boling for the season. They've won the last three with backup guards with right guard Kevin Zeitler nursing a foot injury. And they haven't given up a sack in any of the games.
» A total of four linebackers are on season-ending injured reserve, including two players that were starting in the nickel package in Emmanuel Lamur and Taylor Mays, and the Bengals are ranked eighth against the pass.
» The club's most seasoned and one of its most versatile defensive linemen, Robert Geathers, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the opener.
And now with the other starting cornerback, Terence Newman, wearing a long brace for his knee and using crutches, the Bengals are due to face one of the league's top receivers Sunday (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in the person of Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown. Brown has the fourth-most yards in the league and with at least five catches or 50 yards in every game this season, it's the longest streak in the NFL since 2002.
If the question is just how many key injuries can the Bengals survive, then another question has to be how many teams can replace a first-round draft pick at corner with another first-round corner?
"We've got a deep roster here, one of the deepest I've ever been on," said cornerback Adam Jones, the last man standing on Monday. "We've got a lot of guys in this locker room who could go on and play for other teams right now and be starters. I'm confident in whoever we've got to play. It is what it is. We'll be all right."
The next man up appears to be Dre Kirkpatrick, the 2012 first-round pick out of Alabama who hasn't been able to bust into the starting lineup this season because of the solid play in front of him: Jones, Hall, Newman and slot corner Chris Crocker.
"If we do miss any time anywhere, we've got obviously a guy chomping at the bit to play more in Dre Kirkpatrick," head coach Marvin Lewis said at his Monday news conference. "Terence and Leon and Adam were able to hold Dre at bay. It's been hard, but they had a big stiff-arm on him, and trying to keep their jobs from him. And frankly, they've been great mentors for him. So yeah, he'll get obviously an opportunity to expand his role."
Kirkpatrick has played just 131 snaps this season, but he's been effective at times. Even when the great Calvin Johnson beat him for a touchdown in Detroit back on Oct. 20, he drew rave reviews for the tight coverage.
His 29 snaps in place of Crocker last month in the slot were part of an effort that held the Cleveland defense with one touchdown, although Kirkpatrick joined the ever-growing club getting beat by Josh Gordon when he gave up a 74-yarder. Kirkpatrick played just three snaps against the Chargers the previous week, all third-down stops that included his first NFL interception when he ripped the ball away from Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates on the doorstep of the red zone.
"We've got a lot of good guys on this team. We don't have any guys that are not top-notch guys," Jones said. "I'm quite sure guys are licking their chops and are eager for the chance to get in. And with the way we're playing nobody wants a letdown. These guys work hard in practice, too. Even our scout team. They make it hard for the offense. When you see those guys working hard and making an interception against a top 10 offense, it kind of puts it into your mind that these guys are ready to go. I think they'll be ready."
Jones's advice to Kirkpatrick is pretty simple: study. He's played well in spots, but never for an entire game.
"He has and it's been good for us, too, and him confidence-wise," Jones said. "But when you're starting you've got to do a lot more studying. It's not like you're just playing a couple of more plays. It's different when you're out there the whole game. I'll be on him. We can't let down in the back end. We're playing too good right now to have any lagging in the back end. I'm quite sure the coaches are going to make sure he's ready. I'm eager for the challenge for Kirk. I think he's ready."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» SAM backer James Harrison returns to Pittsburgh this Sunday night playing a much bigger role this time than he did in the second game of the season. With Atkins out, Harrison has been a huge lift. He played 52 snaps against the Colts and about 30 of them were on the defensive line as defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer keeps shuffling the guys up front to keep offenses off balance.
» The Bengals are trying to win back-to-back games at Heinz Field for the first time since 2005 and 2006.