Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is getting close to his injury-delayed debut.
The Cincinnati Bengals' top draft pick hurt his left knee while working out during the summer, forcing him to miss out on the chance to compete for a starting job during training camp. Finally, the knee is healed and the 17th overall pick in the draft is ready to get on the field for the first time.
It could happen Sunday night against Pittsburgh.
"It's possible," coach Marvin Lewis said on Wednesday. "We'll see what happens through the week."
The Bengals (3-3) have struggled to overcome a series of injuries to defensive backs all season, starting with Kirkpatrick's knee. They have only two interceptions, tied with Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Detroit for second-fewest in the league. Dallas has only one.
Cincinnati has repeatedly shuffled its secondary, finally deciding to start Terence Newman at cornerback opposite Leon Hall and moving cornerback Nate Clements to safety, which has been a problem area. They also brought back safety Chris Crocker, who has one of the two interceptions. Defensive lineman Michael Johnson has the other.
Kirkpatrick expected to be playing long before now. He recovered from the knee injury in time to practice in August and was hoping to play in the final preseason game at Indianapolis. He developed tendinitis in the knee after a few practices, forcing him to back off the workouts.
He was cleared to resume practice on a limited basis two weeks ago, and has gradually increased his number of plays.
"I'm coming along," Kirkpatrick said Wednesday before practice. "I'm getting there. Every day is a process, and I'm managing it well and going as hard as I can every day."
Kirkpatrick still gets treatment on the knee, but said it hasn't given him any problems. He found it easy to be patient when he was just starting his rehabilitation program.
"Early on it was because I knew I couldn't go out there," he said. "Now it gets frustrating sometime, but my dad is a pastor and he is putting wisdom and the right things in my head."
The Bengals have to decide whether to let him play on Sunday night against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers (2-3), or sit him one more game and then give him the bye week to do more catching up. The Bengals play against Denver and the Giants coming out of their bye.
Kirkpatrick knows that Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning will make a point to test a rookie cornerback.
"It's not going to be easy," he said. "Every day is a challenge. That's why I look up to the leaders to help me in the film room and show me what I'm not doing right."
Lewis likes how Kirkpatrick looks during practice, when he splits time with the starting defense and the reserves.
"I've been really impressed with Dre Kirkpatrick in practice — more impressed than any time he's been here," Lewis said. "Even more impressive than when he was here in rookie minicamp. He's competing well, he's practicing very hard, he's getting his conditioning to where it needs to be to sustain playing in an NFL game, play after play after play.
"He said this is the best he's felt since 2010 at Alabama. He said the knee bothered him most of last year, so he's feeling good about it."
Cornerback Leon Hall missed two games with a hamstring and calf injury. He has started the last two at right cornerback, with Newman across the field. Adding Kirkpatrick as an extra cornerback would give the Bengals another playmaker on passing downs.
Hall thinks the secondary is settling down after being in flux because of injuries.
"I think we are kind of getting into a little bit of a groove," Hall said. "We are still making some mistakes that are pretty big within the game. As far as having the same people out there and having some confidence and trust in people out on the field with you, it is definitely better."
NOTES: RB Brian Leonard missed practice Wednesday with sore ribs, injured during the second half of the loss in Cleveland on Sunday. Lewis said he's day-to-day. Otherwise, the Bengals are in good health heading into the Steelers game. ... C Kyle Cook walked around the locker room without a boot on his right foot, a sign of improvement. Cook hurt his right ankle in the final preseason game. Although he went on injured reserve, the Bengals designated him as their player who could return to the active roster if he heals during the season.
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