Dre Kirkpatrick has opened eyes as a gunner.
When Cincinnati plays the Patriots on Sunday Night Football next week (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in New England, it's a measuring stick for all Bengals in the scrum that is now the AFC. And that includes a special teams unit ranked second after the first three games.
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick gets a live look at the Patriots' Matthew Slater, the AFC's perennial Pro Bowl special teamer, as he makes a bid to become one of the NFL's elite gunners covering punts.
He has been letting punter Kevin Huber know that he wants see him in the Pro Bowl that is staged this season in Phoenix the week before the Super Bowl.
"I'm always telling him I want to see him get to the Pro Bowl. That's one of my goals," Kirkpatrick says. "Who's to say I won't be with him?"
No one with the Bengals. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons says it is going to come down to tackles and right now Kirkpatrick has just one. But Simmons also knows Kirkpatrick is a key reason why the Bengals lead the NFL in punt average against them and why Huber is second in the NFL with eight punts inside the 20 with no touchbacks. Kirkpatrick has downed two of Huber's four punts inside the 5, another one at the 8, and helped force the dangerous Jacoby Jones to call two fair catches inside the 20 in Baltimore.
"Forced fair catches are a huge stat," Simmons says. "Dre has great body control, great quickness, and, most importantly, he believes nobody can block him. That's half the battle."
Or as secondary coach Vance Joseph says, "If he believes he can become a Pro Bowl gunner, he can accomplish that. His quickness and the long arms that can beat double teams, that's a special ability."
Simmons takes you through life as a gunner and it's not a pretty one. They're put out there on an island where everyone in the stadium can see them and seven out of 10 times they're double-teamed. And when they win the battle while freeing up someone else to make the play, the value is incalculable. All guts. All glory. Or not.
"It makes us that much better," Simmons says.
Add up the ten major special teams categories and the Bengals total rankings in them and it computes to a total of 118, second to the 89 of the Cowboys. They are overpowering the AFC North, where Baltimore (131), Pittsburgh (173) and Cleveland (204) trail mightily.
In 2012 the Bengals led the NFL in that category with the help of three gunners, cornerback Adam Jones, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, and safety Jeromy Miles. Hawkins (Cleveland) and Miles (Baltimore) now work elsewhere in the division and Jones is playing more regularly at cornerback.
But the new trio of Kirkpatrick, fellow first-round corner Darqueze Dennard and rookie wide receiver James Wright has won the 2012 confidence of Simmons, when Huber led the NFL with 11 punts inside the 5. With four already, he's on pace for 12.
"Dre's doing a great job, He's got great ball awareness down there," Huber says. "Once I kick it, it's pretty much in their hands and they've been all over the place. They give me confidence. If I wasn't sure they'd get down there, maybe I'd take something off and go five, six yards shorter. But those guys are great getting there."
After all, how many punters have two first-round cornerbacks playing gunner?
"Pretty good deal,' Simmons says.
Of course, Kirkpatrick would like to be vying for playing time at cornerback, but with the way Jones, Leon Hall and Terence Newman have played the past two years, that's a tough fight.
"It gets frustrating on the bench watching guys play. That's the hardest thing I've had to do," Kirkpatrick says. "Hopefully my numbers gets called here. If it doesn't, hopefully somebody would like to see me play, but I also want to play my position."
Until then he's all out on teams and trying to become the league's best gunner.
"I feel like nobody is going to block me,' Kirkpatrick says. "You have to study like you're studying the offense. I study the safety and his footwork. You really can't use the same technique or same moves week after week, they get a read on you. Like last week (in the Tennessee victory). I went inside and they were right there waiting for me. So on the next one, I had to figure out if I was going to do the same thing or try something else. It depends how smart the guy is."
Kirkpatrick is smart enough that he no longer has to do what he did the last couple of years and confer with Huber before the snap. Now he doesn't even have to glance back to make sure where Huber is going with it.
"I just know," Kirkpatrick says.
The Bengals know they may have something special on special teams.