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Youthful sage

Posted May 8, 2012


Robert Geathers

Among his 118 games with the Bengals the stat line says Robert Geathers has started 67 at left end, 17 at right end, four at linebacker. But his defensive line coach for all those, Jay Hayes, doesn't think of any of those statistics when it comes to the current Dean of the Bengals.

Yet he does have a number in mind.

Zero.

"He's going into his ninth season and I don't think he's ever been fined," Hayes says. "He's never been late. He's never been anything. When I give my son an example to be like, it's him. And he came in like that. He knew what to do from the moment he got here."

At 28, Geathers continues to be a youthful sage that can do whatever is asked up and down the line. Rush and stop the run from the edge. Rush up the middle. Drop in a zone blitz. His latest season finds him the glue of one of the more intriguing units in the NFL after it helped the Bengals register their most sacks in the Marvin Lewis era last year even without the benefit of their best pass rusher at 100 percent for the last eight games with their largest and most effective line rotation in maybe team history.

And Carlos Dunlap is trying for Geathers's starting job he has held at left end since the 2007 opener on Monday Night against the Ravens when he put a mark in every defensive category.

"I know Uncle Geathers isn't going to hand it over," says Dunlap, with 14 sacks in his first two seasons. "I've learned a lot from him. Just talking about the game and things he's seen and he went through. How to prepare every day."

Which is what Hayes says Dunlap has to do if he's going to become the starter. Be there every day. Like Geathers.

"Carlos knows that. He knows he has to stay healthy and practice," Hayes says. "You've got to be there and he's working on it."

Dunlap, 23, is so concerned about overcoming the injured hamstring that hobbled him over the last half of the season that he went right into his offseason weight room instead of going to campus at Florida.

"I can still see it on film," he said, wincing of that awkward yet winning last-snap sack in Tennessee.

At 6-6, Dunlap says he's leaned up and feels healthy enough that he wants to start and play at least 60 percent of the snaps.

"That's what he should be saying. That should be everyone's goal; to be the starter," Geathers says. "When I came in here I didn’t worry about who was starting. Everything is up in the air right now and until it's settled there'd be something wrong with him if he didn't feel that way. He's a great young player."

Geathers isn't so much loving the turnstile rotation as he is the competition it breeds.

According to the play counts of profotballfocus.com, it wasn't too long ago that Geathers played a monstrous 896 snaps for the team that swept the division in 2009 for about 81 percent of the plays and followed that up in 2010 with 812 more for about 77 percent. And when he missed the last five games of 2008 with a knee problem that has been his most serious injury, he still finished with third most on the line at 662 snaps.

Whether it was because of injuries or talent or both, the Bengals just didn't have the seven or eight bodies they feel like they do now to roll through at any time. Geathers came through it in warrior fashion to see this.

"The rotation has benefited us, but I keep saying it's the competition that puts everybody to the next level," Geathers says. "When you come into training camp and you don't have a spot locked up, that stops guys from missing practice, it keeps guys from making mistakes. That's why we're so good. You have a down day, get hurt, and you might not get your job back. It's the competition that takes you to the next level."

Dunlap has racked up his sacks in the same situational pass-rushing role that Geathers used for his career-high 10.5 sacks in 2006.

Since then Geathers's role, scheme and cast have all changed and he's had 13.5 since. But in that stretch he has also bailed out the defense at linebacker in '07, led the line in tackles in '09, and rung up the second-most tackles and third-most pressures on the line in '10 despite missing a month of the preseason.

Playing his fewest snaps last season since '06 with 510, Geathers came within a botched whistle of having his second-best season with four sacks.

The question is if Dunlap plays other than passing downs, are his sacks going to go down?

"It varies from player to player and team to team; each year is different," Hayes says. "There were times (in the past) Robert didn't have enough help. And (more snaps) can take a toll on you. It depends on a lot of things. A sack from the line isn't an individual thing, it's a product of the entire line."

Dunlap is counting on more plays meaning more sacks. He only has to look at his 2010 classmate, Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins. Promoted to starter last season Atkins not only led the Bengals with eight sacks, but interior NFL linemen. Atkins is an example of just how different the defense is compared to, say, '07 and '08.

"I think I can be an every-down guy, but I have to earn it in training camp," Dunlap says. "Geno got more playing time and he had a big sack year. You can get into a better rhythm rather than sitting a series, waiting a series, playing a series. If you can be in there more frequently you get a better feel for the opposition. That comes from watching film, too."

Although two key parts of the rotation, Jon Fanene and Frostee Rucker, left via free agency, the signing of two former first-round ends Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey, and the drafting of two tackles back-to-back in the second and third rounds with Penn State's Devon Still and Clemson's Brandon Thompson indicate the rotation is still full-throttle.

And Geathers, heading into the last year of his deal, is preparing for this camp like the previous eight. Like a guy whose father, uncle, and brother have played in the NFL.

"Head down, keep working," he says. "My teammates, management and coaches know what they're going to get. It should be an interesting training camp. It should be fun. Competitive. It's going to make this team better."

Geathers looks to be the mainstay. Anderson and Harvey are trying to jump-start their careers and Harvey is a guy Dunlap knows well.

"He kept me from playing at Florida because he played well," Dunlap says of that freshman season.

And Geathers can mentor Still and Thompson like he has everyone on this line. Which is what Geathers was doing this past weekend at the Robert Geathers Celebrity Football Camp in his hometown of Georgetown, S.C. With the help of seven other NFL players (including teammates Pat Sims, Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson), Geathers had a free camp for 150 children in his rural town that rarely gets such an event.

But there's a difference between being a mentor and a pushover.

"I'll always help any guy. But I'm not going to say, 'Here Dunlap, this is how you take my job,' '' Geathers says. "If he comes to me and needs help and if I see somewhere I can help him, I'll help him. But I'm not going to say, 'Here's the recipe to get me out of here and maybe out on the streets.' It's not working like that."

Which is why it's called a rotation.

And it's why they stick together.

"We're going to lunch. Sushi. We're trying to get the Pro Bowler to pay," says Geathers, smiling at Atkins and Dunlap.

 

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