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Coping without Geno

Posted Nov 1, 2013

Just a few hours before Bengals Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins sufered a season-ending knee injury Thursday, Hall of Famer Warren Sapp reminded us why he's so valuable.

There are so many reasons why the loss of two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins is as devastating of a hit as the Bengals have suffered in the Marvin Lewis era. (Maybe just below the Carson Palmer torn elbow that wiped out 2008 from the face of the earth. Or his ACL tear on the second snap of the 2005 playoffs.)

The attention Atkins draws frees up everybody else and ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are going to end up with more blockers. His tenacity inspires. His success teaches. So much so that even Hall of Famers admire him.

"The best defensive tackle in the game right now," said NFL Network's Warren Sapp, who wore that moniker for several years at the turn of the century.

The first indications are that Atkins should have a good chance to resume his station in the league when he returns next year. It doesn't appear to be one of those catastrophic knee injuries where the ACL, MCL and PCL get blown out along with some cartilage.

It's believed it will be a straightforward surgery and the usual timeline suggests Atkins has a real chance to be back for the first day of training camp, which is about nine months away.

But for now, Sapp is going to have to watch somebody else.

"I get so sick of watching these kids around the league; I flip back to Geno and say, 'Let me watch somebody play this game the way it's supposed to be played.' He's got everything," Sapp said.

It was pregame Thursday night on the field at Miami's Sun Life Stadium. Maybe a good two-and-a-half hours before Atkins tore the ACL in his right knee against the Dolphins on a scrum where his leg was planted, twisted and then got fell on.

It was a shame. Atkins, a product of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area who had 40 or so family members and fans in the stands, waved to them as he went off the field on a cart late in the second quarter playing against father Gene's old team.

Earlier that week, Dolphins left guard Richie Incognito compared Atkins to Sapp and their ability to wreck an offensive line.

But Sapp, who played at 6-2, 303 pounds, said the 6-1, 303-pound Atkins reminds him of his NFC contemporary who went to six Pro Bowls, La'Roi Glover.

"He's got the same kind of stance. Feet that go out and they kind of run the same," Sapp said. "I was more of an elusive guy. An on the edge guy. He's power and he uses it. I wasn't as powerful as he is. I was more of an athlete. I'd kind of shake you down. He'll go through you and shake you down."

When Sapp is talking to the young guys, and they may be older than the 25-year-old Atkins, Atkins is what he's talking about.

"He knows what his fastball is. I try to tell kids that all the time. 'Why are you making things up?' " Sapp said. "Mariano Rivera had one pitch and he had 600-plus saves because he was good at it. If you become good at a pass-rush move, use it. All we ever talk about is Reggie White's Hump. Throw your fastball. When I watch Geno, he goes to his fastball more often than not and I love him whenever I'm watching the guy do what you do best."

Sapp chortled watching Atkins go to his heater last Sunday. Power. Leverage. Straight ahead.

"I watched him take that dude from the Jets, hit him under the chin and walk him back to the quarterback," Sapp said. "I mean, walked him back on top of him. Normally, I had to go around them before grabbing the quarterback. He goes right through them and grabs them. He's doing things I couldn't do."

Early in the game Atkins lined up on Incognito and whether Icognito was looking for help or Atkins just beat him inside, it was his sixth sack of the season, giving him 29 in his first 57 games. Sapp had 26.5 in his first 57 on the way to 96.5 and Canton.

"Pace and getting there are two different things," Sapp said.

The Bengals have to find a way to pick up that pace as the defense gropes with a major injury for the second time in three weeks.

The Bengals have become a perennial top 10 defense with largely a faceless brand of blue-collar players who play selflessly, relentlessly and well together. If the Bengals have two elite players, they are Atkins and the man who went down for the year two weeks ago in Detroit with a torn Achilles, cornerback Leon Hall.

The Bengals won't be able to replace Atkins's inside pass rush, but they need productive people to take snaps in there to give guys a rest. Regarded by many as the best defensive line in football, what made it was the deep rotation of seven and eight players that kept everybody fresh.

But the season-ending injuries to Atkins and left end Robert Geathers, along with the monthlong elbow injury of tackle Devon Still, have sapped that depth. Right end Wallace Gilberry, who can duck inside, has been limited with a groin issue and he gutted out 22 snaps Thursday despite missing the only practice of the week.

Still, a second-rounder, and Brandon Thompson, a third-rounder, have to bolt big out of the 2012 tackle draft class. When Still returns in a week or two, he has some pass rush skills inside, but he's been battling consistency. Thompson, who played the most snaps of his career Thursday with 36, is more of nose tackle and a run player, but he flashed at times when it was just him and nose tackle Domata Peko left against the Dolphins after Atkins's injury.  

"(Still) is well on his way to progressing back. Brandon ... Peko continues to do good things and is a great leader for those guys up front," Lewis said Friday. "But between Robert and Geno, we’ve lost two of the guys up front we counted on. Wallace Gilberry continues to play through injury. He answered the bell last night and did good things. Michael (Johnson) and Carlos (Dunlap) have to keep being consistent and be dominating in games.”

Atkins's absence and the lack of a rotation showed up late in the game. Granted, the Dolphins ran just a total of 24 snaps in the second half and OT and Johnson came up with a huge sack that forced Miami to take its last timeout with 1:11 left. But it was Cincinnati's only sack in the second half of the game despite the fact Icognito left injured in the second quarter and struggling backup Tyson Clabo was playing right tackle. With virtually no breaks because of the lack of bodies, Dunlap played 97 percent of the snaps and Johnson 94.

Don't look for any huge names, but the Bengals figure to bring in some linemen to kick the tires.

Yet there's only so much that can be replaced. If Hall's injury brought guys to tears in Detroit, the Atkins injury in Miami shook their foundation.

"He's one of the best," Peko said.

Hall and Atkins also have something in common. They both suffered season-ending injuries in their ninth games just two months after signing huge extensions. Hall tore his first Achilles in 2011 and Atkins went down after he signed a $55 million eye-opener just before the opener. Pro Football Talk reported that he'll receive $22 million over the next six months as he rehabs, part of $31 million over the first three years.

It's not the first time. Ten days after he signed the biggest deal in NFL history for $118 million over nine years at the end of the 2005 season, Palmer tore his ACL in the Wild Card playoff game and received $30 million over the next 13 months.

 

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