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Baby steps over for first-rounder Kirkpatrick

Five-hundred ninety-nine days after the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him in the first round, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is expected to make his first career start Sunday night in Pittsburgh.

“I hate the way it happened, by Terence (Newman) going down, because we had a great chemistry going on and the role that I was playing,” Kirkpatrick said. “But like I said, this is what I do and what I love to do, so I’m going to be ready.”

Injuries slowed Kirkpatrick’s development his rookie season as a knee issue forced him to miss training camp and the first seven regular-season games, and a concussion kept him out of the final four.

Kirkpatrick played 42 snaps on defense and 64 on special teams, a far cry from his days starring at Alabama where he helped the Crimson Tide win a national championship.

But this year Kirkpatrick has eased into the rotation at cornerback while showing consistent improvement on special teams, particularly in his role as the gunner on punt coverage.

“I feel I’m doing pretty good,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s all about baby steps.”

Or at least it was. That all changes Sunday when Kirkpatrick makes the big leap to starter for Newman, who injured his left knee against the Colts and is expected to miss one to three weeks.

“He’s played well for us, and it’s been good for him confidence-wise,” cornerback Adam Jones said. “But when you’re starting, you’ve got to do a lot more studying. It’s not like you’re just playing a couple of more plays. It’s different when you’re out there the whole game. I’ll be on him. We can’t let down in the back end. We’re playing too good right now to have any lagging in the back end. 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.”

He had better be, because Pittsburgh wide receivers Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery have been putting up big numbers against much more experienced corners.

Brown ranks second in the NFL with 90 receptions and fourth in receiving yards (1,240). Cotchery is tied for ninth with nine receiving touchdowns. And Sanders has 58 catches for 661 yards and five scores.

“There’s a quickness about them very much like Indy had back in the day with (Marvin) Harrison and Reggie Wayne and the kid that’s over in Washington now (Pierre Garcon),” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “That’s how dynamic this group can be. To me, they’re one of the better receiving groups, probably underrated receiving groups in the league, because they all can run, and they’re all threats with the ball in their hands.”

And whichever of those receivers lines up opposite Kirkpatrick is sure to get a lot of looks from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

“Hopefully I can put that to a stop early,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’m going to prepare the same as I always have. I’m not going to overwhelm my head and beat myself up trying to over-exaggerate things. I’m just going to go in and go how I would in any other game.”

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