Dre Kirkpatrick’s two-interception performance in a playoff-clinching win against Denver last year showed what kind of impact he could make when given the chance.
The Bengals’ fourth-year cornerback points to one specific play in another game — a playoff loss to the Colts — as the moment he really made his case for a starter role this year.
Kirkpatrick, Cincinnati’s 2012 first-round draft pick, had the misfortune of playing behind veteran Terence Newman the past two years, but he got five starts in that span when Newman was either hurt or sick. That included the wild-card playoff game when Kirkpatrick defended a third-down pass in the end zone to force the Colts to settle for a field goal in the second quarter with the game tied.
With Newman departed, the 25-year-old Kirkpatrick takes over as the starting left corner, a role he officially begins Sunday at Oakland.
“A lot of people would say the Denver game was my big moment, but to me, it was the Colts playoff game,” Kirkpatrick said. “Reggie Wayne broke on a post, but I made a good read and I made a play on the ball. I felt that was a good play on a veteran receiver. He’s very crafty, so that was the play that ‘hey, I can play this position.’
“I put in a lot of hard work trying to improve and press (upon) this team to let them know I am accountable to be a starter here, and I can play at this level. I feel that all plays a part in how I attack and how I prepare myself this week.”
The Bengals knew Kirkpatrick could be special when they drafted him out of Alabama, but they had to wait a little longer than expected to see it. After working back from a preseason knee injury in 2012, he made his debut in Game 8 that year and played sparingly until a concussion and recurring knee issues ended his season after five appearances.
Kirkpatrick, who helped Alabama to two BCS national championships in three years, used the time on the sidelines to better prepare himself mentally.
“That gave me the vantage to become a student of the game, learn and watch and get a feel for the speed of the game,” Kirkpatrick said. “I could have went in a tank and been depressed, but I had veteran guys that were constantly uplifting me and keeping me on the right focus.”
The past two years Kirkpatrick tried to take advantage of being surrounded by veteran defensive backs. Now he said he approaches the game with the added confidence he has the same tools and traits mentors like Newman, Adam “Pacman” Jones and Leon Hall showed him.
Kirkpatrick has 46 career tackles and six interceptions, including three each of the past two years, over 35 games.
“Little by little he started making some plays in practice, but just over the course of time you could tell he was understanding what we were asking him to do, and he was preparing himself to go play, so when he was called upon to go in there, he knew what to do,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.
“He learned how to become a real true pro. He worked at it and studied and perfected his techniques, and he’s gotten better every year. When he got his opportunities late in the year, he did a really good job and he’s carried that into the season this year.”
Kirkpatrick and the rest of the secondary will be tested by a young Oakland offense featuring another former Alabama standout in wide receiver Amari Cooper. As a rookie, Cooper has earned a starting spot and is expected to be a main target for quarterback Derek Carr.
Although Cooper’s time at Alabama didn’t coincide with Kirkpatrick’s, parallels can be drawn between the way both attack the game with a mindset they belong, which Kirkpatrick said is a trait of most any player coming out of Alabama.
Kirkpatrick said he expects Cooper “to compete every down,” just like he will, but Oakland’s offense presents “a whole set of challenges” for which he hopes to be ready.
“It’s that West Coast offense,” Kirkpatrick said. “Everything is quick, a lot of screens. We have to be watching for the trick plays they like to use. They have a lot of speed on the outside and we just have to be great defenders this week. We’ve got a great defense, and we’ll be ready and prepared for whatever they bring.”