Talk about making every snap count.
Dre Kirkpatrick played just three from scrimmage at cornerback in Sunday's 17-10 victory in San Diego, all on third downs that ended in punts, and one resulted in his first NFL interception.
The Bengals didn't blink turning to Kirkpatrick midway through the third quarter on third-and-six from the Bengals 30 when the Chargers went with a double tight end set like they did much of the day but this time lined up three of their four receivers to the left. With nickel back Chris Crocker lined up on tight end Ladarius Green in one slot, Kirkpatrick was on Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates in the other.
Kirkpatrick overcame the mistake of letting Gates get inside him by reaching over Gates's back and making the catch a yard shy of the first down.
Looking at the ball Monday in his locker, where equipment managers Jeff Brickner and Adam Knollman left it with the date and place taped to it, Kirkpatrick said he planned to give it to his mother.
"I'm going to give it to my mom. She'll keep up with it more than me. My son would pop it," Kirkpatrick said. "There's no better time (for the first one). On a great player like Gates. I was very emotional after the game. I just had to sit back and soak it all in. I didn't want to talk about it. It was nothing but another play. But to me, I haven't made a play like that in three years.
"It was emotional. I just wanted to take it all in … I really don't know what to say. I haven't been there in three years. It just feels good to be back making plays. It feels great. It's most important that we won. All that stuff wouldn't have mattered if we didn't get the win."
Kirkpatrick, a first-round pick in 2012, saw his rookie year all but vaporized by a bad knee and a concussion. He played in just five games and took 43 snaps. And this year, even though Leon Hall is lost for the year, he's sitting behind the solid veteran trio of Crocker, Terence Newman and Adam Jones and has played in all but three games but with more snaps on special teams than his 105 from scrimmage.
On Monday, head coach Marvin Lewis left no doubt that he believes Kirkpatrick is on his way to being a starting cornerback and preached patience. He calls it "time on task."
"It's everything we've expected. He just has to handle the emotional, and right now his job is he's doing other things," Lewis said in his news conference Monday. "He's been outstanding on (special) teams. He's creating penalties, he's making field-changing plays and he's made a couple of plays on defense over the last three or four games when he's been in there. He's making plays. That's the thing. The hard thing is you've got to go out and practice, you've got to keep practicing because you don't know when your time comes."
When Newman limped off the field on one third down Sunday, Kirkpatrick checked in and Lewis says he's watching even if nobody else is. The coaches love Crocker because of his feel for the system and his versatility, and the hope someday may be that the 6-2, 185-pound Kirkpatrick can offer some safety range as well as hold down cornerback.
"Early on in the season we were training him as a safety in practice," Lewis said. "As an emergency safety in practice, but as a corner and he's learned to play the nickel spot and all of the variations we have in there, which he's done a very good job of when Chris was out. He's got to keep doing that because obviously there's a lot of comfort with Chris having been in the scheme for so long and being so smart as a veteran player. Dre's got a lot of those things to overcome. It's nothing to do with ability. It's just time on task."
Kirkpatrick flashed it all on the pick. He adjusted to right end Michael Johnson lining up on Gates as he took a wide split on the passing down.
"Mike was kind of in between us so it was hard for me to get my hands on (Gates)," Kirkpatrick said. "As he broke under, I knew (quarterback Philip Rivers) was going to him, so I just tried to get my hand in there. Obviously, my hand grabbed the ball. I caught the ball, so I don't think he even actually caught the ball. My hand got in there right before the ball got in. There was nothing he could really do about it. He's a great player. He's a future Hall of Famer and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.
"Mike had me kind of confused. He was lined up so wide. I didn't know what he was doing. So I played like the D-linemen and just popped out. Mike was lined up on Gates and I had to get inside."
It may have helped because Johnson bumped Gates of the line as he headed on his rush. Whatever, Kirkpatrick is going to keep preparing for the specialty situations when they come.
"It doesn't matter. I'm just going to do my job and continue to do it," Kirkpatrick said. "It was something we went over. A third-down package we went over. It was a great call by Coach."
TEZ-MANIA: Now go to the polar opposite of the 2012 first round. On Monday, Lewis called it "the eighth round" when the Bengals signed WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict as an undrafted free agent. Burfict has been emerging as such a presence as he makes a run at the Pro Bowl that Lewis actually talked about his leadership skills in the same sentence as those of Ray Lewis.
This is hallowed ground. Marvin Lewis was Ray's defensive coordinator in his first six seasons as his pupil established himself as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
"I think they have a uniqueness of leadership … I think as a young player Vontaze is very parallel to where Ray was. Right away there's just an air," Lewis said. "Once they hit campus, they have special qualities of leadership that most young players don't have, but yet a (humility) and a knowing where their place is, you know what I mean? Knowing where their place is as a young player, getting behind the veteran players, learning from the veteran players, being a fly on the wall with the veteran players but yet when their time comes as a player to not be shy, to really hold up their end of the bargain."
People outside of Cincinnati are starting to notice. Burfict went sideline-to-sideline in the pages of USA Today on Monday after NFL reporter Jarrett Bell visited him in the postgame locker room in San Diego. Burfict hasn't courted attention in the wake of his well-documented fall from the draft boards and he doesn't seem wild about it.
But he talks and when he does he's usually thoughtful and there's no stopping his highly-regarded football IQ from showing through.
"I think he's a pretty humble young man. Obviously a good player but the team is bigger than him," Lewis said. "I think Vontaze, he's that kind of person. It's not an act, it's real."
On Monday, Burfict again downplayed his Willis Reed moment before Sunday's game. He talked Lewis into playing him with an ankle he sprained just 48 hours before in practice when he turned it without any contact. He went from nearly going on to the inactive list to playing all but one of the 65 snaps and leading everyone with 13 tackles in extending his NFL lead to six (131-125) over Buffalo rookie middle backer Kiko Alonso.
"I don't care," Burfict said Monday of the pub. "I'm just playing football. At first no one knew who I was and now my name is blowing up. I'm just trying to play football and play for Sundays."
This Sunday would be a great storyline, but Burfict won't let it. The 8-4, AFC South-leading Colts come to Paul Brown Stadium for a 1 p.m. game with their MVP the first pick in the 2012 draft, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. The MVP of the 8-4, AFC North-leading Bengals is arguably the undrafted kid from Arizona State.
But Burfict won't bite.
"I don't care about that undrafted stuff, that was two years ago," he said.
Instead, he said all the right things about Luck.
"He's a great quarterback. He has speed, pretty big and can break tackles," Burfict said. "He won't slide most of the time. Our D-line is going to have to get after him, our linebackers are going to have to stay in their drops and if does break the pocket you have to go up and collapse him. He's a great quarterback, he loves to win and plays with a lot of effort for his team.
"He has a great future. He makes smart decisions with the ball and doesn't turn it over – he will either get rid of the ball or run for two to three yards. Ever since I played him in college he's controlled his offense. He keeps them composed. We have a tough test for us but we're up for it."
Asked if he sacked or picked Luck in their conference battles, Burfict laughed.
"No, they don't throw the ball at Stanford," Burfict said.
One thing's for sure, it seems, on Sundays now in Bengaldom: Burfict is playing if humanely possible and he'll rack up some inhuman number of tackles.