More Injuries Leave Cincinnati Bengals in the Lurch for Playoff Push

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY| The Cincinnati Bengals are back in the street free agent business, looking for another player after Bengals' punter Kevin Huber was victimized by a malicious helmet-to-helmet, borderline peelback block of a defenseless player/punter. The illegal block should've nullfied a punt return touchdown in the Bengals' 30-20 Week 15 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers but failed to draw a penalty from the Ed Hochuli crew officiating the game.

The Bengals aren't likely to find a comparable replacement for Huber, who had a 45.2-yard per punt average and was also the holder for kicker Mike Nugent but will have to audition punters with cold-weather credentials if that part of special teams can be salvaged heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.

James Harrison

The Bengals' defense suffered the loss of linebacker James Harrison in the first quarter after Harrison leveled Steelers' wide receiver Jericho Cotchery with an uncalled helmet-to-helmet hit on a snuffed-out shovel pass. Harrison rushed off the edge on the fourth-down conversion by the Steelers following his hit of Cotchery but did not return afterwards.

The concussion status of Harrison won't clarify until later in the week, but the Bengals may have to adjust personnel fits during the week to compensate for the potential loss of Harrison, who was seeing more time as a pass rusher off the edge, as well as strongside backer for run downs.

The Bengals relied upon rookie LB Jayson DiManche to replace Harrison, but the loss of Harrison's more physical play at the line of scrimmage and pass rush skills were apparent. If Harrison can't go for Week 16, the Bengals may have to find ways to work LB Vincent Rey more into Harrison's role.

Dre Kirkpatrick

One of the few encouraging aspects of the Bengals' loss to their AFC North division rival was the play of cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who replaced injured veteran Terence Newman.

Kirkpatrick started poorly during the Steelers' first offense series with a foolish face mask penalty followed by a whiff in space off too big a cushion in pass coverage, but Kirkpatrick rebounded nicely to produce a solid overall game. The ability of Kirkpatrick to step into the starter's role and play well will be of utmost importance during the final two weeks of the season if Newman can't return.

Kevin Zeitler

Starting right guard and former first-round draft pick Kevin Zeitler practiced during the week, but the play of replacement -- Mike Pollak -- has been solid enough to keep Zietler out of the starting lineup for a fourth straight game due to a foot injury.

The Bengals were successful without Zeitler and appeared to have also survived the season-ending loss of starting left guard Clint Boling by shifting left tackle Andrew Whitworth to left guard and starting Anthony Collins in Whitworth's position.

After the Bengals' sluggish offensive showing against the Steelers, Zeitler may reclaim his starting spot at right guard, which would force the Bengals to decide whether to leave Whitworth at left guard or move Pollak there and return Whitworth to left tackle. However the line personnel is decided, having Zeitler back and fully healthy is a luxury for the Bengals.

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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