Scrimmage storylines

Posted Aug 4, 2012

Geno Atkins

When the Bengals stage their first intrasquad scrimmage ever at Paul Brown Stadium Saturday at 3 p.m., everyone in the universe knows that their best player on offense is wide receiver A.J. Green.

But everyone is just beginning to find out their best player on defense just may be the best inside pass rusher in the universe as Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins begins his third season where he finished his second.

His possible matchup with first-round pick Kevin Zeitler, the team's starting rookie right guard, highlights some of Saturday's more absorbing storylines. Zeitler, the 310-pounder out of Wisconsin, has been raving about Atkins since the first week of OTAs, wondering if they're all this good.

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander may let him in on it later.

"97 might be the best inside pass rusher there is," Alexander said after Friday's practice, zeroing in on Atkins's number. "We don't have anybody that can block 97 right now. That's the best thing going for (Zeitler). He gets to pass block 97."

The nose tackle playing next to Atkins, Domata Peko, is a less than innocent bystander since they flop a lot of the time and go against both guards.

"He's probably the best D-tackle I ever got to play with and watch on Sunday when we're watching film," Peko said. "I see some of the things he does and I say, 'Man, how does he do that?' I think he's in the top five, top three defensive tackles in the league. He's so quick and he's got the strength of a 350-pound guy. That's the one thing that scares offensive linemen. Not only his quickness, but his strength. I've seen him bull rush the best of the best at offensive guard. He's one of the best three techniques in the game."

Defensive line coach Jay Hayes says Atkins is getting better because he hasn't changed. Still plays 150 miles per hour. Still stays lower than a sprinkler. Still into the playbook. Except now at the ripe old age of 24 he's also taking rookie draft pick Devon Still under his wing and teaching him "The Bengal Way" at the three technique.

"Outwork, outhit and outrun," Atkins said.

Atkins thinks he's more comfortable with the defense after breaking in as a rookie in 2010 and going through the lockout in 2011 and says the game has slowed down for him.

Meanwhile, he's speeding it up for Zeitler. Alexander says the biggest adjustment for his guys is speed of the game. All he's saying is Zeitler is lucky enough to be getting a taste of what may be the fastest.

"The last couple of days he's done real well," Alexander said. "He's learning a couple of tricks. He's learning a little bit of the nuances. I'm really happy where he is. I'd just like to see him (Saturday) put it all together."

Atkins doesn't say much. But he'll help Zeitler, such as if his stance is tipping run or pass, or if Atkins thinks he's oversetting him in the alignment.

"He's getting good competition from one of the best D-line groups in the league," Atkins said.


FREE AGENT BIDS: Asked about his two free-agent rookie linebackers, head coach Marvin Lewis tried not to let on that he's pretty excited.

Told he looked like he had swallowed the canary, Lewis laughed and said, "A couple of canaries."

He's talking about Emmanuel Lamur, the former Kansas State safety trying to hook on as the backup WILL in a duel with veteran Vincent Rey, as well as Arizona State middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict trying to beat out 2010 fourth-round pick Roddrick Muckelroy as the backup middle backer.

"He's what they're supposed to look like," Lewis said of Lamur. "He's doing a good job on the field mentally. That's what you like about him. Linebackers that develop in the NFL have that kind of stature. They can turn into that 6-3, 250-pound guy that can really run. He can run and understand ... he's a great prospect."

While the 6-4, 230-pound Lamur switched to linebacker halfway through his college career, Burfict was anointed the next great middle linebacker coming out of high school. It didn't work out that way, but he seems to have shelved the on-field discipline problems and lack of fundamentals that famously hounded him in college. If he harnesses the power of his 250 pounds, the Bengals have something.

At least Lewis seems to think so.

"He's done everything he's supposed to; better than you can coach it," Lewis said. "He's done nothing negative for me other than a poor workout at the combine, a poor interview at the combine, and not run the 40 when I went out to Arizona State (for his pro day)."

Notice that there's been nothing negative since Burfict signed. Linebackers coach Paul Guenther said he's anxious to see how the rookies react with pads on while making adjustments.

"Do they go haywire or keep poised?" Guenther asked.

He's looking for more consistency from Burfict.

"He's got to play disciplined and within the scheme," Guenther said. "He's done well, he's just got to get reps. He's not getting many as a rookie, so the few he gets have to be good."


WIDE OPEN AT WIDEOUT: The scrimmage should be fun watching the receivers putting down a bid for the spot opposite Green. The most consistent guys have been Green, Andrew Hawkins and Ryan Whalen. But Brandon Tate, Armon Binns, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones have, at times, displayed some playmaking ability the Bengals need on the outside.

Like offensive coordinator Jay Gruden says, who does it every day? The Bengals need some of these bigger, faster guys to become more consistent. On one play, Jones looks like a future Pro Bowler. On the next he looks like a fifth-rounder out of Cal's vertically challenged offense. But he's got all the tools.

Tate (hamstring) came back Thursday after missing some days, but Whalen may not go Saturday after pulling a hamstring in the same practice.     

JAGGED CORNER: The scrimmage was supposed to be a time for draft picks like Dre Kirkpatrick and Shaun Prater and emerging 2010 third-round pick Brandon Ghee to make inroads against the five veteran cornerbacks that are former first-round picks.

Isn't this always the way? Kirkpatrick and Prater haven't practiced this camp and Ghee is probably done for at least the preseason and maybe more with what is believed to be a wrist injury. And with Adam Jones (hamstring) probably not playing until Sunday's Mock Game and Jason Allen nursing a bruise, we'll probably see plenty of rookie safeties George Iloka and Tony Dye at corner, and maybe veterans like Reggie Nelson and Jeromy Miles.

SAFETY SQUEEZE: Lewis is due out with his depth chart Monday and it'll be interesting to see where he's got Miles and Taylor Mays at the spot opposite Nelson. It seems like they've put a lot of distance between themselves and Robert Sands, as well as the rookies. But the 6-4 Iloka, the fifth-rounder out of Boise State, has looked pretty good and he continues to be an intriguing factor.


LAWSON IN RUSH: During the 2006 draft, Lewis lusted after Manny Lawson's pass-rush abilities so much that he probably would have changed to a 3-4 if he got him. Lawson went to the 49ers instead, where his 6.5 sacks in 2009 remain his career high. With just 16 career sacks, Lawson says he's looking for double-digit sacks this season if the Bengals follow through on their practice plans and use him more as a rusher.

When Lawson signed here last year during the shoehorned free agency, he barely had time to make the switch to a 4-3 SAM backer, never mind pick up the nuances of the defense. So he barely rushed and had just 1.5 sacks.

Now Guenther says he's giving Lawson a lot more pass-rush snaps than he got last year in case the Bengals think they need it. With the loss of the 10 sacks from backup defensive linemen Jon Fanene and Frostee Rucker, Lawson could be an option to get some of those back.

"That's the league," Lawson said. "You lose something, you gain something."

When he arrived, Lawson took some pass rush snaps with the linemen as an end, he says, but as the season went on the Bengals stopped doing it and had him exclusively with the backers. Lawson understands why they're giving him more work on the rush.

"You come in like I did quickly and changing defenses, you've got to scale it back a little bit," Lawson said. "Now it's the same system, same coordinator, why not open it up?"

Lawson says he's comfortable rushing with his hand on the ground as well as standing up. But he knows what will make the team use him.

"You have to make the most of it," he said.


NUMBERS GAME: If Ghee isn't out for the year, the Bengals may have to carry two cornerbacks that won't be ready early in the year with him and Kirkpatrick. That would probably force them to keep 11 defensive backs and eight defensive lineman instead of nine linemen.

That makes it tight up front. Left end Robert Geathers underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and should be ready for the Sept. 10 opener. He's one of four starters. Carlos Dunlap is going to make it. Rookie tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson are going to make it.

That would seem to leave one spot for right end Jamaal Anderson or defensive tackle Pat Sims. With Thompson in place and Michael Johnson needing a backup at right end, Sims could be the odd man out if the Bengals keep just eight. He has yet to practice with what is thought to be a muscle issue.

But it was his run-stopping abilities the Bengals were so badly missing in the last seven games last year when he was shelved with ankle problems.

No doubt they'll be watching Thompson closely since the third-rounder from Clemson is the next guy behind Sims after Peko at nose tackle.


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