The great thing about having a deep NFL roster is that when one player goes down for any variety of ailments, a capable backup player has their chance to make a name for themselves. Such is the bittersweet case with this year's Cincinnati Bengals. Various stars and role players have gone down with injury and it has paved the way for other backups to come in and play well in their stead.
We saw a few of these players raise their game for the Bengals on Sunday against the Ravens and, if they are wise, they will continue to give some of these players a chance to shine as the season progresses. Be it a rotational role that is bigger than what they had going through the first ten weeks, or more snaps as a starter, these five Bengals should get more looks on the field this Sunday versus the Browns.
1.) Tyler Eifert, Tight End: Yes, the rookie has seen substantial playing time and, yes, he played 100 percent of the offensive snaps on Sunday in Baltimore. Still, Eifert proved that he can shoulder a heavy workload and be a solid contributor on offense. He was the second on the team in receiving yardage with 55, which included a nifty 40-yard catch and run. Though he dropped a ball on a third and goal which would have been an amazing catch, he did have a great effort on an important third and five in overtime. He muscled the ball away from the defender and managed to convert the third down.
With Gresham dealing with a groin injury, as well as a yo-yo like season filled with ups and downs, Eifert should be counted on more to contribute. Throw in the fact that Mohamed Sanu is struggling to find his groove this year and Eifert is a good option in the slot as well.
2.) Andrew Hawkins, Wide Receiver: I should probably preface this with a "if healthy" prefacing statement, right? Since suffering a severe ankle injury in the preseason, Hawkins has been designated as active in the previous two games against the Ravens and Dolphins. In those two games, he has one catch for ten yards and one carry for minus three yards, which also included a self-recovered fumble.He only participated in seven percent of the offensive snaps on Sunday. So why does he deserve more time?
This offense needs a spark and reliable targets. While the big plays have come a bit more frequently this season, Andy Dalton's cast mates on offense have a terrible knack for disappearing for stretches--be it minutes, drives or games at a time. Dalton's erratic play at times doesn't help that matter, but the more weapons he has at his disposal, the better. If two or three targets are off of their game on a particularly Sunday, having an extra solid target would be most welcomed. Hawkins only played in seven percent of the snaps on Sunday, though it seems as if the coaching staff is easing him back into the lineup. He should see more time against Cleveland--a team he tore up last year and a subsequent gradual increase as the weeks go on. We hope.
3.) Vinny Rey, Linebacker: In a story akin to that of Notre Dame's Rudy Ruettiger, Rey has burst onto the scene since Rey Maualuga went down. No.57 did something on Sunday that no other Bengals defensive player has ever done in franchise history by getting three sacks and an interception in the same game. He also collected 15 tackles and had three passes defensed in the game.
Rey's performance is the type that every fan should hope for when the unfortunate event of an injury should occur. It's quite possible that Maualuga returns this week, though like Hawkins, they might want to take it easy on him a bit. Rotating "the Rey's" might be a good idea against Cleveland and Vinny could be a solid linebacker to have on the field in passing situations. He has temporarily helped alleviate the sting of the injuries to Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur and has earned some more playing time outside of special teams. He could be a decent matchup against Jordan Cameron, who torched the Bengals in the Week Four loss to the Browns. Though his playing time will drop with Maualuga's return, he should have a much bigger role on defense than he did a few weeks ago.
4.) James Harrison, Linebacker: Yes, he starts and yes his skill set is a bit limited at this point in his career. Still, the ol' bulldog has been making some plays of late, racking up a sack and a fumble recovery the past two weeks. With the injuries along the defensive line to Geno Atkins and Robert Geathers, we should see Harrison rush off of the edge a bit more, which has been his forte his entire football career.
We haven't seen that much of it, mostly because the Bengals have found effectiveness blitzing other players. Throw in the fact that Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap haven't missed a beat up front and Harrison is struggling to find a niche. I still say that Cincinnati should find a way to use Harrison to his greatest strength, which is rushing the passer and give him a little more than 34 percent of the defensive snaps (what he had on Sunday). Be it as a blitzing linebacker or lining straight up as a defensive end, let him loose.
5.) Margus Hunt, Defensive End: "Unleash the Kraken!" No, but seriously, even though Hunt is raw, there has to be various ways to use him. Let him continue to rush the passer from the inside or get him in there on every single opposing field goal attempt. The second round pick hasn't been trusted with a big role this year, but the last time the Bengals allowed a second round defensive end get some time, we were exposed to the greatness of Dunlap back in 2010.
I'm not suggesting that Hunt should get a boatload of time right now, but the only way a raw player can improve is by closely-watched coaching and in-game experience. Giving Hunt two snaps (as he had on Sunday) isn't going to give Hunt the opportunity to improve very much. Right now, he's a luxury that they have on the roster, but having a 6'8" end at your disposal should be used from time to time.
Others That Should Be Considered:
Dane Sanzenbacher, Wide Receiver: For the reasons mentioned above with Hawkins, Dalton needs sure-handed wideouts who can run solid routes. "San-zen-bach-AH!" fits that bill.
Rex Burkhead, Running Back: The running game is working a little better of late, but still could use the occasional spark. Burkhead was sensational in the preseason, so why not see what he can give you on a few snaps?
Dre Kirkpatrick, Cornerback: It's getting to be around that time to see where your former first round pick is at, in terms of his level of play. He has left a lot to be desired in limited opportunities, but the sink-or-swim point has to come sometime in 2013, doesn't it?