Season in the sun

Posted Jan 18, 2012

Geno Atkins

Geno Atkins, who led his line in most snaps and fewest words, appears ready to become the first Bengals defensive lineman since the year he was born to play in the Pro Bowl.

It’s not official. He and the Bengals have yet to be notified. But Atkins, the AFC’s first alternate at tackle, seems to be up next. Either New England’s Vince Wilfork or Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata is going to be getting ready for the Super Bowl next week when the all-stars gather in Hawaii for the Jan. 29 game on NBC (7 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 5).

Atkins would be the first Bengals D-lineman to play in the Pro Bowl since nose tackle Tim Krumrie played in the Feb. 7, 1988 game, 50 days before Atkins was born. And he’d also be playing for a former Bengals defensive tackle since the Texans coaching staff is working the game and its defensive line coach is Bill Kollar, Cincinnati’s first-round pick in 1974.

Atkins will be recognized, but not because he’ll tell you about it.

“When you have a conversation with Gene," said Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes, “it's usually one-sided. But that’s OK. I don’t mind that. The guy plays.”

Atkins did some of his best work against the Texans both at Paul Brown Stadium last month and two weeks ago in Houston in the playoffs.

Against Houston’s highly-regarded offensive line Atkins had a half-sack, a quarterback hit, and three tackles while recovering a fumble in the 20-19 loss on Dec.11.

It will be recalled that Atkins very nearly won that game at PBS when he picked up a fumble and was four yards away from putting the Texans in a 26-10 hole and the Bengals who knows where in the AFC North race with 11:35 left in the game. A missed tackle put the ball awkwardly in his arm and he ended up losing his own fumble at the Houston 2, but it was hard to blame him for the ensuing 83-yard drive for a field goal that ignited Houston's fourth-quarter victory.

Then Atkins set the tone of the early stages in the Wild Card game in Houston when he nearly caused running back Arian Foster to fumble on the first play and came back in the next series to blow up Texans center Chris Myers for Foster’s two-yard loss when the Bengals forced two punts to open the game.

Atkins later came up with a sack and a quarterback hit as one of the lone bright spots for a defense that got drilled in a 31-10 loss.

The Myers sequence is what Hayes calls a “classic Gene Atkins play,” and there were many of those in a season he shared the league’s DT sack title with Oakland’s Tommie Kelly.

“Myers kind of reached for him, but Geno knocked him so far back into the backfield that the running back fell down and Geno tackled him,” Hayes said this week. “He got leverage on a guy, got pads under pads, and pushed the lineman into the backfield. And Myers is a very good player. A Pro Bowl-type center. And Gene just basically mashed him in the backfield. Impressive.”

That’s all you need to know about how Atkins has emerged from the fourth round in 2010 out of Georgia to one of the NFL’s top interior players in a matter of 32 games.

“He understands what he has and he uses his advantage,” Hayes said. “Quickness, burst, strength, technique.”

Now Atkins’s nickname is “Gene,” which means we’ve gone full circle. His real name is “Gene,” as in he’s named after his father, 10-year NFL safety Gene Atkins. But he’s been called “Geno” ever since the days he was a preschooler screeching through the Saints locker room and general manager Jim Finks and head coach Jim Mora named him “Little Geno.”

What’s in a name? A legacy, Hayes says, which is a big reason why he thinks Atkins is such a seasoned professional at the tender age of 23.

“He just goes about his business; takes care of the things he needs to take care of,” Hayes said. “He always knows what to do. It’s rare when he makes an error where he doesn’t know an assignment. That doesn’t happen."

Hayes compares Atkins to an another legacy on the defensive line, Robert Geathers, Atkins’s fourth-round Georgia draftmate that broke in seven seasons ago as a wily rookie turning 21 in his first training camp. Geathers’s father and uncle plied their trades in the NFL and their descendants keep coming.

“From my experience with those two men, they came in and never missed a beat as to what they were supposed to do,” Hayes said. “Where other guys don’t quite get it. Or still lag behind. Or have a problem with being told, ‘This is how it is,’ or “You need to do this to be a good player.’

“They just take the coaching and they take the criticism and they move on and go in the right direction. That’s refreshing about Geno. You can give him the correction and he’ll make the correction and he’ll take the coaching and go beyond what you’ve told him.”

Hayes loves the fact that Atkins realizes the tools of his trade aren’t only leverage and strength, but also notebooks and pencils.

“He’s always got a pencil; he’s always ready to write,” Hayes said.

Atkins is also welded to his iPad. If he’s sitting at his locker, his fingers are in a furious glide across the screen. Once a cell phone went off in the next locker and when his neighbor wondered aloud about where the ringing area code was from, Atkins had Googled the answer before it went to voice mail.

Atkins didn’t need any technology to find out how to get into the starting lineup by the time his second Opening Day rolled around.

“I told him in the offseason he needed to improve his play against the run to be an every-down player and he did it from the start,” Hayes said.

Atkins improved so much he went from a third-down player with 20 tackles and three sacks to doubling and tripling everything. His 66 percent of the snaps led the line, his 7.5 sacks led the team, and his 69 tackles were second on the line to tackle Domata Peko’s 91.

“Not bad,” Hayes said, “for a little pass-rushing specialist.”

Good enough to wait for the call.


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