An unfortunate truth about the NFL is the fact that all teams must battle the injury bug. Every year, every team suffers through personnel losses, some major and others not as big of a blow. Over the past few weeks, the Cincinnati Bengals have had rampant injuries decimate their roster--particularly on defense.
Remember the 2006 season? In a Week Two win against the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals suffered a handful of big injuries that dictated the direction of the rest of the season. Center Rich Braham, an unsung hero of one of the league's best offensive lines, suffered a knee injury that effectively ended his career. Linebacker David Pollack, a promising second-year linebacker/pass-rusher, suffered what would become a career-ending neck injury in the game, while the loquacious Chad Ochocinco sustained a concussion himself.
That single game marked a pivotal point in the direction of the franchise for the next few seasons, as the Bengals weren't able to follow up a 2005 trip to the playoffs until 2009. While it has been the last three weeks of 2013 that needs to be examined and not just Thursday night's loss in Miami, the Bengals will need to rebound from the multitude of injuries they have both physically and emotionally.
On paper, it would seem that the 2013 Bengals are far better positioned to overcome these devastating injuries than they were almost a decade ago. Some solid draft classes dating back a handful of years is a big reason. Still, "on paper" means nothing, and these young players waiting in the wings will need to start maturing into serviceable, if not solid NFL players immediately.
Here's a look at the injured players and the potential young replacements that need to step up:
Leon Hall, CB, Achilles, Placed on IR:
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Second Year: The former first round defensive back has largely disappointed because of injuries and the lack of confidence from coaches. He has seen the field in a limited fashion the past three games and when he has, we have seen him often get turned around in coverage and/or blown up by a blocker. Hall played both outside and in the slot and was the team's best cover man, so Kirkpatrick has big shoes to fill here. The good thing is that he has a number of veterans t lean on in an effort to help remove a lot of the confusion in the defensive scheme. Chris Crocker has been helping out in the slot and Terence Newman and Adam Jones have stepped up their respective games on the outside.
J.K. Schaffer, MLB, Second Year: Schaffer has only been active in two games this season and with both Maualuga and Michael Boley out injured against the Dolphins, one would have thought that he would have seen him on the field often. Instead, he was relegated to special teams duty and didn't finish without a tackle. He will need to regain his preseason form where he was one of the team's leading tacklers.
Jayson DiManche, LB, Rookie: DiManche is one of those players that Mike Zimmer and Marvin Lewis love because of his versatility. He likely latched on to one of the last open roster spots at linebacker because of the season-ending injury to Emmanuel Lamur, but his contributions have been minimal. Again with Maualuga and Boley out for an unspecified amount of time, DiManche may be relied upon to be a rotational player in the defensive unit.
Vontaze Burfict, WLB, Second Year: Quickly becoming the captain and leader of the defensive unit, Burfict will now be tasked with more time in the middle on a rotational basis with Maualuga out. You'll see Burfict slide to the middle at times, so some other player will also need to help out on the weakside if/when he continues to do this.
Geno Atkins, ACL Tear, Placed on IR:
Brandon Thompson, DT, Second Year: Though Thompson is technically slated to be Domata Peko's backup, he has been seeing time at both tackle spots because of the versatility that the Bengals defense employs. He has come on of late, recording 1.5 sacks the past four weeks to go with ten tackles during that span. With Devon Still's health in question, Thompson will be relied upon heavily going forward.
Devon Still, DT, Second Year: You have to give the Bengals credit for their apparent foresight with the drafting of Thompson and Still within the first three rounds of 2013. All of sudden, those two value picks are coming in handy with the devastating news that Atkins tore his ACL Thursday night. Though Still has flashed at times, he is still raw and needs to morph into a solid NFL player quickly. He's also battling a mysterious elbow injury right now, so he will need to get healthy ASAP.
Taylor Mays, Shoulder, Placed on IR:
George Iloka, S, Second Year: Though Mays and Iloka split time at safety this year and the former Boise State alum started over Mays, he will need to step up full-time now. There isn't much behind him for spelling and rotational purposes, so he will need to prove that he is up to the task. So far, Iloka has overcome some bumps along the way by racking up 41 tackles, a forced fumble and two passes defensed this season. He'll need to prove that he won't be a liability in coverage down the stretch.
DiManche, Schaffer, Burfict: Because Mays played a hybrid LB/S position and did it rather effectively this season, linebackers will need to tow the line for some of his duties along the front seven. Additionally, Crocker, who has been playing a bit of a CB/S hybrid position himself, will need to tow the company line and do what he can to help fill the void that Mays left.