BENGALS CBS VS STEELERS WR ANTONIO BROWN
When starting cornerback Terence Newman (knee) didn't appear on the practice field Wednesday, it fueled speculation that Dre Kirkpatrick is going to get his first NFL start Sunday in Pittsburgh (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5), and wouldn't that figure in this next-man-up season for the defense? Brown is waiting with his career season that has put him ahead of Cincinnati's A.J. Green in the yardage race and second in the NFL with his work on third down.
Not to mention in the last two games Brown has emerged as a Bengals Killer in Hines Ward fashion. Last season Brown fell just four yards short of having two 100-yard games against the Bengals, scored the fourth-longest touchdown against Cincinnati in the last two seasons with his 60-yarder at Heinz Field last season, and averages 17 yards per catch against the Bengals in his career. And for good measure he'll make special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons toss and turn this week because two years ago he returned the last punt for a touchdown against the Bengals on another 60-yard arrow.
"He does so much and he does it well," says Leon Hall, the team's other injured starting cornerback out for the year. "He's quick, he's got good speed. He runs every route and he runs better routes than most receivers. It's one of those deals where you may have him at the top of the route, but he's so quick he can get away in open space. You want to be (physical), but he's so quick that if you're too physical and you miss him, that's a touchdown."
Adam Jones, who was working on Brown when he went deep last year, is the other cornerback that is going to get a heavy dose of Brown. It will be recalled on that play last season that Jones was the victim of a blitz that never came and when he jumped the route anticipating that Brown would be the hot receiver, Brown was gone.
If Newman can't play, all eyes are going to be on the 6-2, 185-pound Kirkpatrick, as long as his journey to his 17th NFL game. He arrived last year via the biggest trade in Bengals history, a first-round pick for Carson Palmer. But he barely got on the field as a rookie with about 50 snaps in five games because of a knee injury that didn't get cleared up in offseason surgery that wiped out this spring. That set Kirkpatrick back enough that when the Bengals suffered injuries in the secondary early this season, they went back to the couch to snag Chris Crocker to play the slot.
And even when Hall tore his Achilles on Oct. 20 in Detroit, Kirkpatrick sat behind two first-round picks playing like it, Newman and Adam Jones.
But Kirkpatrick has kept at it and the coaches like the way he has contributed in a limited role whenever called. When Crocker didn't play against Cleveland last month, Kirkpatrick held up on all but one of his 29 snaps. When he played just three snaps against San Diego, he got his first NFL interception when he reached over the back of a Hall of Fame exhibit to snatch the ball from tight end Antonio Gates. Kirkpatrick was so emotional ("I hadn't made a play in two years," he said) that he left the locker room so he wouldn't have to talk about it.
But Kirkpatrick knows he'll have to stow the emotion Sunday night.
"I'm not going to overwhelm my head and beat myself up trying to over-exaggerate things," he says. "I'm just going to go in and go how I would in any other game."
Hall, the hero of last year's game at Heinz when he scored Cincinnati's lone touchdown on a pick-six, thinks he's ready as he recalls last offseason when Kirkpatrick nibbled at his brain.
"The thing I like about him most is that he wants to learn; he wants to be great," Hall says. "We worked hard together in the offseason. We made sure he knew all the plays. Checks and coverages and formations. He came to me about it. He reached out in the offseason when he could have been doing anything he wanted. He studied the position and tried to make himself better.
"I like how he's progressed. Any time he's been out there, to be honest, with the little time he's had on the field and in practice, he's done well. And when he does something wrong, he asks about it. How he can get better. That's what you like to see."
What you'll have to see Kirkpatrick do is wrap up his tackles. Hall, Newman and Jones have been excellent in that department this season (except for two plays last week) and Brown excels at being slippery. According to Pro Football Focus, he's third in the NFL in yards after catch and last Sunday he scored just the third receiving TD against the Dolphins by a wide receiver this season when he took a seven-yard flip and outran the linebacker to the sideline before racing for a 43-yard touchdown catch.
"Hit and wrap. You have to make sure tackles," Kirkpatrick said.
The Bengals have been relentless on pass defense, but they've been nicked a little bit lately. In the last two seasons they've allowed six 100-yard receivers in 29 games. But three have come in the last three games and Brown is coming off a 137-yard effort against Miami.
If there's one guy who's got an idea what we'll see from Kirkpatrick on Sunday, it's practice squad quarterback Greg McElroy. He threw against Kirkpatrick plenty of times at Alabama in practice, but the first thing he remembers is Kirkpatrick announcing his decision to attend 'Bama on ESPN. How he looked at the Texas hat, said it didn't have enough swag, and then reached for a while in a box before he pulled out the one with the A.
"He's the same guy that showed up on campus when he was 18. He hasn't changed a bit and you have to love that about him," McElroy says. "That's always been part of his repertoire. He's a real confident guy. He's got great range, great size. He's a tough guy. He's great in the run game. I think he's been looking forward to getting out there and competing. Our coaches do a great job getting people in position to make great plays, and Dre has been coached by some of the best defensive coaches in college and the NFL."
Kirkpatrick admits it just hasn't been easy sitting on the bench and he had trouble getting his arms around for it a while.
"At first it was because that was something that I didn't understand, something that was new to me," Kirkpatrick says. "But now I learned my role and when I learned my role, we started clicking, we started playing better. So it's team ball. You've got to play team ball to win."
The thing defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is going to stress to Kirkpatrick is, Don't Get Beat Deep. He did when Cleveland's Josh Gordon touched him up for a 74-yard score last month and while he had good coverage on a perfectly thrown ball, the Bengals major in taking away the bomb. They gave up a 69-yarder last week, but it was all on a bevy of missed tackles after a nine-yard throw.
So Kirkpatrick talks patience.
"(Brown is) very shifty, quick. Got great hands," Kirkpatrick says. "He's a leader in catching in the league right now. So you've got to get your hands on him, slow him down early.
"I feel I'm doing pretty good, just taking it one day at a time. Like I said, it's just baby steps. It's all about baby steps right now."
But they are leading into prime time.