When you conjure up the conventional image of top-flight NFL pass rushers, sinewy defenders veering around the outside corner of the offensive line is what comes to mind as the norm. The path of least resistance is usually the quickest route to an offensive backfield. Geno Atkins is one of the rare defenders to buck that philosophy.
Defensive tackles are usually globular shaped masses of men used to plug in gaps up the middle. Not Atkins. He’s a 300-pound ball of muscle, who pancakes quarterbacks by taking the off-road route up the middle, for a more direct path to increasing his sack total.
Atkins was a first-round talent selected four rounds after 6-4, 317 pound Ndamukong Suh, because the then-286 pound, 6-1 defensive tackle was perceived to be too small. The thought process was that he’d get thrown around like a pinball against 300-plus pound offensive linemen. Instead he’s packed more weight onto his frame, yet maintained his quickness, compact strength and low center of gravity.
The 12.5 sacks Atkins roped in last season were the most by an interior defensive lineman since Warren Sapp and La'Roi Glover recorded 17 and 16.5 respectively during the 2000 season.
According to Pro Football Focus’ pass-rushing productivity stat, Atkins’ 49 pressures, 13 hits and 16 total sacks(half stacks weighted as full sacks) made him the most disruptive pass rusher in the entire league last season.
And in case you think he overcommitted to playing the pass, recognize that Atkins finished second in PFF’s run-stop percentage, which accounts for tackles that constitute a loss for the offense in 28 out of 263 run-snaps.
Cats like Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson or Niner’s linebacker Aldon Smith regularly put up prodigious sack numbers, but they don’t flourish without an assist from interior D-lineman like Justin Smith and Atkins creating pressure inside. After Smith injured his arm, the Niners fell apart and Aldon’s historic pursuit came to a complete halt. It also dropped him out of our top five.
"Quarterbacks have a tendency, if they're not getting pressure up the middle, to step up in the pocket, and then the ends have to run around and squeeze back," Cincy defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer explained to SI.com in January. "Geno, a lot of time, can keep the QB from stepping up, giving the ends a better chance. That's one reason why Michael Johnson's sack totals, for him, are extremely high this year" -- Johnson had 11.5 sacks, bettering his career best by 5.5 -- "as are our other ends'."
For the past decade, Justin Smith’s been the gold standard for the forgotten trench pushers. Atkins has taken up the mantle and the Bengals defense's ascent has followed. In the second half of the season, A.J. Green and the “Red Rifle” Andy Dalton got the cred, but Cincy made its push to the postseason on the back of a defense that was the NFL’s best in the second half of the season.
The AFC North has been home to some great defenders, but with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu either gone or on the decline, the conference may be looking to southwestern Ohio for its next great defensive beast.
Last season, was just the beginning. Let’s tune in and find out what Atkins and the Cincy defense can do for an encore.