CINCINNATI — Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick walked past one of his Cincinnati Bengals teammates in the locker room and summed up his week to everyone within earshot.
"Showtime!" he said loudly.
Yes. It finally is.
The 2012 first-round draft pick is expected to make his first NFL start against the Steelers Sunday night.
Kirkpatrick has moving up the Bengals' depth chart, but it has been a steep climb. Now, with starting cornerbacks Leon Hall and Terence Newman sidelined by injuries, the playmaker from Alabama's national championship teams gets to move into a bigger role with the playoffs on the line.
Cincinnati (9-4) is closing in on the AFC North title. The Bengals can clinch it if they win in Pittsburgh on Sunday night and second-place Baltimore loses in Miami on Monday night.
"I feel I'm doing pretty good, just taking it one day at a time," Kirkpatrick said. "Like I said, it's just baby steps. It's all about baby steps right now."
The Bengals expected him to move into a starting role quickly when they took him with the 12th overall pick last year. He was hurt for most of his rookie season, sidelined by a chronic knee injury and a concussion.
He has been healthy most of this season, but has been limited on the field because Hall, Newman and Adam Jones played so well. Kirkpatrick has been on the field for only 15 percent of the defense's plays, spending most of his times on special teams.
"Terence and Leon (Hall) and Adam (Jones) were able to hold Dre at bay," coach Marvin Lewis said. "It's been hard, but they had a big stiff-arm on him and trying to keep their jobs from him. And frankly, they've been great mentors for him.
"So yeah, he'll get obviously an opportunity to expand his role."
The defense has overcome several significant injuries and remained one of the league's best. It needs Kirkpatrick to uphold the standard.
Hall, the Bengals' top cornerback, tore his right Achilles tendon during a 27-24 win at Detroit on Oct. 20. Newman hurt his left knee during a 42-28 win over the Colts on Sunday and will be sidelined this week in Pittsburgh.
"I like how he's progressed," Hall said this week. "Obviously he's had some injuries but anytime he's been out there — whether it's out there the little bit of time he's had on the field or whether it's in practice — he's done well.
"And anything he hasn't done well, he's one of those guys who asks about it, asks what he did wrong, asks how he can get better. So that's a trait you like to see."
Kirkpatrick didn't get on the field for more than 10 plays on defense in any of the first seven games. He played 27 the week after Hall was hurt, but was on defense for only 20 plays in the next two games combined.
He played a season-high 29 plays on defense during a 41-20 win over Cleveland, but gave up a 74-yard touchdown catch by Josh Gordon. He had 25 plays on defense against the Colts.
Kirkpatrick knows that Ben Roethlisberger is likely to challenge him on Sunday night.
"But hopefully I can put that to a stop early," he said.
The defense ranks eighth overall after one of its worst showings. The Bengals allowed Andrew Luck to become only the second quarterback to throw for 300 yards against them this season.
Luck threw four touchdown passes in the second half. He completed a slant pass that Da'Rick Rogers took 69 yards for a touchdown and another short pass that LaVon Brazill turned into a 19-yard touchdown by slipping through the hands of six defenders.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer showed them eight plays on Wednesday that he deemed unacceptable, and made his point loudly.
"You'd probably have to put some earplugs in," Burfict said.
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