COMMENTARY | The Cincinnati Bengals handled business in Week 14 by beating the Indianapolis Colts 42-28 and claiming the third playoff seed position in the AFC. The win came at a cost with veteran cornerback Terence Newman and starting safety George Iloka knocked out of the game late.
The Bengals' secondary didn't fare well in the second half last week against the passing attack of Colts' quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw for four second-half touchdowns and 326 yards overall. The secondary didn't benefit from a Bengals' pass rush that stalled and failed to produce a sack.
Bengals' defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will have to make adjustments for the Week 15 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers if a short-handed secondary is to be expected to play well enough to win.
As the Bengals' first-round pick reaped from the Carson Palmer trade, Dre Kirkpatrick has underwhelmed since his arrival in Cincinnati. With the season-ending loss of Leon Hall, Kirkpatrick saw his role on defense increase, but with the likely regular season loss of the 35-year-old Newman to a knee injury, Kirkpatrick is now thrust into a starting role that fellow corner Adam Jones thinks the second-year player is finally ready to embrace (Bengals.com):
"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."
Kirkpatrick will be paired with Jones in the 4-3 base and perhaps share slot duties in nickel and dime packages with Chris Crocker, Brandon Ghee and perhaps even potential practice squad call-up Chris Lewis-Harris.
The load for Kirkpatrick and Crocker can be eased if safety Iloka recovers from his concussion well enough to play Sunday night.
Second-year, fifth-round pick George Iloka flat out played his way into the starting strong safety spot in 2013. His range and instincts as the starting strong safety will be hard to replace, but the 2012 starter that he replaced this year -- Crocker -- would be his replacement this time if Iloka is out against the Steelers.
This is Crocker's ninth season in the AFC North, so the Steelers are no stranger to him. He'll be ready to go whether he starts at strong safety or covers out of the slot
The Bengals have played the last three games without starting right guard Kevin Zeitler. The Bengals have won all those games without Zeitler, but his return will make the team stronger, especially with the season-ending loss of guard Clint Boling in Week 13.
Zeitler's return would shift Mike Pollak back to left guard and allow Andrew Whitworth to return to left tackle. Tackle Anthony Collins would have to return to the bench but would be the first backup offensive lineman to play should either starting tackle or guard be forced from action.
The depth of the offensive line is one of the primary reasons why the Bengals are 9-4 so far this year.
The loss of defensive tackle Geno Atkins for the year forced the Bengals to rely on defensive ends Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt more on the inside, which in turn gave strong side linebacker James Harrison more 4-3 DE snaps, as well as an increased role in blitz packages.
The Harrison signing by the Bengals in the offseason has put the defense in a position to expand some of the options the team has in terms of run defense and blitzing, which will be factors that Harrison's former team -- the Steelers -- will have to confront.
Harrison probably does not have any additional personal motivation to play any differently than he would against his former team than he would against any other opponent that is not in playoff contention with the Bengals, but his versatility will be showcased by the Bengals for the Steelers' defense to see what they missed by not re-signing him.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for more than five years. He posts his NFL draft predictions each year at footballnostradamus.com.
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