Wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, two Bengals who played at Georgia, just might be the best players in the NFL at their positions. While Green is making a name with one-handed catches, Atkins is doing it with two-handed ferocity.
Forget Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer, who said this week Atkins should be talked about as an NFL Defensive MVP candidate. Just ask the Chiefs offensive line after Atkins personally blew up their plans to adjust to injury before and during last Sunday's game.
After Atkins wrecked Kansas City for a sack, two forced fumbles, and a team-high six tackles, the word in the locker room after the game is no less than three of those Chiefs linemen congratulated him after the carnage cleared.
"Geno's a beast," says Bengals left end Robert Geathers, his fellow Georgia product. "It doesn't surprise me. He does it in practice and we've got some good offensive linemen. When you see him go out and dominate a couple of series, you kind of expect it from him."
Many have come to expect the brilliant from Atkins. That sack tied Atkins with Dan Wilkinson for the Bengals single-season interior sack record of eight, which gives him a three-sack lead over the other NFL tackles. That makes him a virtual lock to win the NFL interior sack title he shared last season with Raiders tackle Tommie Kelly at 7.5.
The strong, silent type whose hobby is going to movies a couple times a week just keeps shrugging and not saying much.
"There are (10) guys around me doing integral things," he says. "You might not see (tackle Domata) Peko holding on to a double team so I'm left one-on-one. It's a good cohesive group."
Defensive line coach Jay Hayes smiled after a practice this week when asked how he handled Atkins last week during a dominant effort.
"I told him, 'Good job,' " Hayes said. "And high-fived him. What more can you say except, 'You kicked that guy's butt?' "
Kelly comes to town for Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium, but it looks like he won't have tag-team partner Richard Seymour in the middle with him. Seymour the future Hall of Fame tackle who came out of Georgia himself 12 seasons ago, missed last week's game as well as the last two days of practice.
Atkins got to know Seymour at his first Pro Bowl this past January, back when the 33-year-old Seymour joked he wanted to make sure Atkins got enough snaps to be the game MVP. Atkins got the start but wide receiver Brandon Marshall got the MVP and Atkins got more from Seymour than snaps.
"It's going to be good to see Richard Seymour again," Atkins says. "I got a chance to talk to him at the hotel and practice about football and stuff at Georgia. How to prepare to play the game. What to do to be successful. Longevity. Keeping your body fresh. Make sure when you go out to practice work on the little things to help you perfect your craft. Tips overall."
Here's another tip. At 24, Atkins is headed to his second of about a zillion Pro Bowls. But it doesn't seem to impress him. Seymour has 57.5 sacks in 164 games, good for .35 per game. Atkins has 18.5 in 42, good for .44 per game. Warren Sapp, the measuring stick for 21st-century defensive tackles, has the second-most sacks of all-time from the interior at .49 per game.
Atkins says he'd like to be mentioned with a guy like Seymour, "but I'm not there yet." That's the same answer he gives when asked about the-best-in-the-league buzz.
"Still six games left," he said.
That's Atkins. He doesn't turn down interviews, but he doesn't have a PR firm, either. Earlier this week he carried his lunch plate into the off-limits players' lounge during the media period and when he saw Geathers talking to a reporter, he joked, "Talk me up."
Geathers thinks that comes from his football upbringing. Atkins's father Gene is a former 10-year NFL safety and "Geno" is the name his son got from the Saints locker room of the '90s.
"He's been around the game; his dad gave him a heads-up," Geathers says. "One day you guys are going to be praising him. The next day you're throwing him under the bus."
But at the moment, the bus is on blocks. Atkins has an unvarnished approach on the field, too, and Hayes loves it. He tells him something and it's either a shrug, or he says OK, or yes sir, and it gets done. Atkins has the 110-percent motor, although Hayes says there are moments.
"I might have to remind him when the ball is way down the field to keep going," Hayes says with a laugh. "Maybe. If it's way down there. But if the ball is close … ."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth can tell you all about that.
"He's quick, like most small D-tackles, he's a quicker athletic guy but the thing that separates him from all others is he has insane exceptional strength," Whitworth said. "He's a really, really strong guy for a smaller player. That's what takes him to a whole other level is that strength and ability to be quick; it is hard to deal with. Especially when you are dealing with a guy that is below you and under you and hard to get your hands down there to control him."
Atkins's 6-1 frame is what dropped him to the fourth round in the 2010 draft, but it's what makes him a Pro Bowler. Guards can't get underneath him and blended with the strongest of bodies in the league as well as that motor, and no wonder Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham calls Atkins "a bowling ball with knives."
Whitworth just shakes his head whenever he walks into the weight room. There's a good shot Atkins is going to be there.
"The thing about Geno that I think is more important than really looking at what he looks like on tape or in the film is the way he works," Whitworth said. "He's a guy that I joke with all the time when I go in the weight room on Mondays. He's fresh off a two-sack game or six tackles or seven tackles he's got 500 pounds on his back and he's squatting under the rack. He's one of those type of guys. He's on a mission to be a really good player and to push himself. There's no day off to him. That's what makes him good. That's what makes him who he is. As long as he keeps that part of himself he'll continue to dominate."
There may be a little more to it, too. Two weeks ago Hayes challenged his guys for a stretch run where the Bengals have precious little room on the margins.
"Average players need to play good. Good players need to play great and great players need to get better," Hayes says. "Wherever you are, you need to from there. Let's go Geno. See where you are on the scale."
Hayes has a pretty good idea where that is. In the last two weeks, Atkins has fueled the front four's aggressive play.
"As a defense we have to pick up our level as a whole to get to where we want to be," Atkins says. "We've got to pick up our level of intensity and our level of play. I think that's what we've done as a whole."
But Atkins says it's not the end of this movie. Nothing has been decided. Individual or team.
"Six weeks left," he says.