The Dominant Return of Geno Atkins



His attire said it all, even if Geno Atkins didn’t feel like talking.

About an hour after making life hell for the Chargers’ offensive line—guards Orlando Franklin and Chris Hairston were the prime victims—Atkins sauntered out of a cheery Bengals locker room on Sunday afternoon following his team’s 24-19 victory over the Chargers in their home opener donning a red-and-black ‘Sunday Funday’ T-shirt.

Perhaps Atkins was in a rush to travel to the Duke Energy Convention Center and snap a picture with The Incredible Hulk and the rest of the Avengers, who were holding a photo session in one of the final events at the Cincinnati Comic Expo. The Convention Center lies a few blocks north of Paul Brown Stadium, so it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if Atkins, who assumes Dr. Banner’s alter ego on game day, was interested in mingling with a few other supernaturally-gifted individuals.

Sunday, Atkins accumulated three quarterback hits, a pair of half-sacks as well as drawing two holding penalties and a false start. In more analytical terms, Atkins wrecked shit all afternoon.

Here is Atkins blowing past 6-3, 310-pound Chargers center Chris Watt. Here is Atkins plowing the 6-7, 320-pound Franklin back six yards into the face of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. Here is Atkins tossing the 6-6, 330-pound Hairston aside like a human throw pillow.

“Geno was a beast,” says Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko. “When Geno’s doing stuff like that, it makes the whole defense turn. That’s why he’s one of the best players in the NFL. He can control a game.”

Atkins’ performance against the Chargers was the after party to his Week 1 bash in Oakland, where Atkins spent the day personally rearranging offensive linemen in Cincinnati’s 33-10 gangster-slapping of the Raiders. There goes Atkins with a strip sack of Raiders quarterback Matt McGloin. There goes Atkins transforming Raiders guard Gabe Jackson into a human turnstile. There goes Atkins embarrassing Raiders guard J’Marcus Webb with the same move—twice. The sixth-year pro out of Georgia finished Week 1 with two tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.

Through two weeks, Pro Football Focus ranks Atkins as the second-best defensive tackle in the NFL, so his dominance passes both the eye and stat tests. Cincinnati’s defense is chock-full of good and very good players, but Atkins is the unit’s lone game-changing talent, especially with linebacker Vontaze Burfict working his way back from a serious knee injury.

The son of Gene Atkins, a former NFL safety who played for the Saints and Dolphins from 1987 to 1996, Geno Atkins is a notoriously mellow individual. (That is, unless he is near former Hawaii quarterback/cult hero/geographic hair dyer Colt Brennan.)

At 6-1, 300 pounds, Atkins is relatively small for a defensive tackle, which was a major knock against him leading up to the 2010 draft (he fell to the fourth round), but his size has proven to be an asset. Line play in football revolves around leverage, quickness, and hand movement. When healthy, Atkins is a master of all three.

Prior to tearing his ACL on Halloween nearly two years ago, Atkins had become one of the—if not the—preeminent pass rushing force among defensive tackles.

In his first season as a starter in 2011, Atkins notched 7.5 sacks and forced two fumbles in 15 starts. In 2012, Atkins registered 12.5 sacks—more than any other defensive tackle in the league—and forced four fumbles in 16 starts. Pro Football Focus’s ratings system said Atkins was twice as good any other defensive tackle in the NFL. Unsurprisingly, Atkins was named an All-Pro and signed a five-year, $55 million contract extension days before the 2013 campaign started.

Before his knee injury in 2013, Atkins had racked up six sacks in nine games. Last year, he started all 16 games, but didn’t possess the same pass-rushing swagger. The result was a mediocre showing (three sacks, one forced fumble). In the days after the season ended, Atkins was tagged as “just a guy out there” by Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

Good news began to spread early in training camp, with reports surfacing of a return to elite status. The world witnessed flashes of his top form during preseason games, notably against former All-Pro guard Logan Mankins and Ali Marpet, another one of the Buccaneers’ interior lineman.

Now, it appears Atkins is all the way back, and post-game Sunday, the other Bengals defensive linemen made it clear they were ecstatic about the band being back together after a 2014 without Michael Johnson and a healthy Atkins. In 2012, the Bengals were third in the NFL with 51 sacks, with Atkins (12.5 sacks), Johnson (11.5), Wallace Gilberry (6.5), and Carlos Dunlap (6.0) leading the way.

The names haven’t changed this season, with Dunlap (2.5), Atkins (2.0), and Gilberry (1.0) atop the team leaderboard through two contests. Via the good folks at Cincy Jungle, we know that the defensive line has already tallied four quarterback hits and 21 pressures this season. Gilberry says Rivers approached him during Sunday’s game and said, “You guys are on me.”

Another member of the team’s defense has taken notice of the defensive line’s early-season resurgence.

“If those guys continue to play like that, I don’t see anything but bright things for us,” says cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. “The sky is the limit right now, especially with how well they’re playing.”

The sky may not be a realistic scenario, but as long as Atkins continues to perform like a supernatural force, the entire ceiling of the Bengals defense is raised significantly.

Grant Freking is a Fulcher 2 Stay and Cincinnati Magazine contributor, and also writes for Redleg Nation and The Ohioan. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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