Atkins rushes to stardom

Geno Atkins

The last guy to ask about Geno Atkins is Geno Atkins.

On Monday, a day after he roared into the NFL sack lead for interior players with two more after single-handedly rearranging the Jacksonville offensive line, Atkins observed of his performance thusly.

"I just went out there and played my assignments and do what I do," he said.

What Atkins is doing as he bull rushes his way to a second straight Pro Bowl is racking up sacks at a world record pace for those unheralded, grimy, grinding defensive tackles whose play usually only supplements the glory guys on the outside.

With five sacks Atkins is on pace to become the first tackle to ever get 20 in a season. It's a staggering number. It's the stuff of pre-juice-unheard-of-60-homer feats. The closest an inside player has come to 20 is Minnesota's Keith Millard with 18 in 1989, when Atkins was a year old.

You've heard of the Atkins Diet? The Bengals are getting fat on the Atkins Riot.

It's early. There have only been four games. But this is right where he left off last season, when his 7.5 led the NFL interior and came within a half of Dan Wilkinson's club record for tackle sacks. Is Coy Bacon's Ted Williamsish Bengals record of 22 in 1976 in jeopardy?

"He just goes out there and plays. I don't think Pro Bowl motivates him," said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "He's motivated by being the best he can be."

Atkins puts his head down (literally, this guy loves looking at his iPad) and outlines patiently the keys to his success: the outside rushes of ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, the work of his tag-team partner Domata Peko, study of offensive line play, and sticking to the game plan outlined by Zimmer and defensive line coach Jay Hayes.

If you want more, go to the guy that plays next to him at nose tackle.

"He's a beast. He's unreal. He's one of those guys when you look at his stature you're like 'Oh, man. He's a smaller D-tackle,'" Peko said. "But when he's out there on the field he plays like he's 6-7. He plays big and plays strong. He's getting better. It seems like he's being more of a complete player. Not only is he a great pass pusher, but he's also a great first- and second-down player to play the run. He's been making a lot of tackles for loss, been making some nice tackles, and still getting five sacks, leading all defensive tackles in the league. So he's one of the best."

Peko, who got his first sack of the season Sunday as the Bengals added to their NFL-leading sacks per pass ratio, has gone to Atkins for advice for his own pass-rush skills even though he's got four NFL seasons on Atkins.

"We were working on how to use the hands," Peko said.

And why not? Atkins has 15.5 sacks in his first 36 NFL games. If he plays as many games as one of the guys he looked up to, Hall of Famer John Randle who holds the career record for interior sacks with 137.5, he'd end up with 94 in 219 games. That would put him right in Warren Sapp range (96.5), another one of his favorites.

"I've been complimented with people telling me I play like John Randle," Atkins said.

Hayes knows his history. When the Bengals played the Cowboys in the 2010 Hall of Fame Game, Hayes made sure Atkins met Randle during the pregame the day after Randle's induction.

But, really, Atkins is playing like Atkins. Compact like Randle and speedy like Sapp, he's tied for third in NFL sacks with fellow University of Georgia product and Seattle end Chris Clemons, behind only Houston defensive end J.J. Watt's 7.5 and Green Bay outside linebacker Clay Matthews's seven.

And Atkins has a 1.5-lead on interior sacks over Carolina tackle Dwan Edwards.

But, he says he's not a numbers guy.

"I'm not using them for goals," he said.

Remember, if you want to ask about Atkins, don't ask Atkins.

"I'm telling you, the dude is like a little pit bull. He's stocky, compact, and his first step is amazing," said cornerback Terence Newman. "I worked out with him in the offseason and got to see him doing some starts. His first rep is unbelievable and he's smart as hell. I couldn't believe this is only his third year in the league. The guy's going to be one of the best at that position for sure. "

He certainly is right now if you look at how the web site broke down Sunday's game. It gave Atkins superhuman grades as it detailed how he got Jacksonville left guard Eben Britton benched and how Mike Brewster didn't fare much better.

"Geno Atkins announced his presence with a simply stunning display ( 9.7) in Jacksonville," the site said. "Accounting for five ... of the eight pressures ... that Britton yielded in only 22 pass blocks, Atkins was able to get to the inside of Britton far too easily."

The site also noted that Brewster, an undrafted rookie out of Ohio State, then couldn't handle Atkins's bullrush when he came up with his two sacks.

"It's an honor to play next to someone who is really good like that," Peko said.

Maybe what's even nicer is that Atkins is the same guy that came out of Athens in the fourth round in 2010. He showed up, no one could block him, and he didn't say two words.

Not much has changed. But he might say three now.

"He's a really humble guy; that's the cool thing about Geno," Peko said. "You see players sometimes when they get a lot of stats their head seems to get big. But Geno, he's really a team player. He fits within in the scheme and tries to play within the scheme, and that's what you want to see."

Which is why if you want to talk about Atkins, ask somebody else.

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