Geno Atkins is the richest man on the richest Bengals team in history and with Sunday's opener now five days away in Chicago (1 p.m. –Cincinnati's Channel 12) it is what's up front that counts in the trenches and on the ledger as head coach Marvin Lewis takes the wheel of one of the sleekest rides in the NFL.
"He deserves it; the city deserves it," said defensive tackle Domata Peko, his partner in grime.
Atkins, the two-time Pro Bowler who plays defensive tackle "like the good Lord intended" according to defensive line coach Jay Hayes, gave Labor Day new meaning when he signed a five-year, $55 million extension Monday morning before going out to work.
The club has now committed more than $180 million in total dollars for 13 deals during this offseason that re-signed 10 of its own free agents who were starters or regulars, extended the contracts of two of its prized young pass rushers, and embraced the AFC North's signature defensive player from the arch-rival Steelers in SAM linebacker James Harrison.
Lewis is having nothing to do with the pressure question with his team the chic preseason pick. Ranging from Sports Illustrated's No. 3 AFC seed to CBSSports.com's choice to win the Super Bowl, Lewis calmly warns his team not to get "smoke puffed up their butts" as he stalks his first postseason victory after a franchise-record 160 regular-season games as coach.
"This is a big deal. It's what we've been working towards, is having continuity," Lewis said Monday, after sharing a Paul Brown Stadium press conference with his new $55 Million Man, Atkins, the two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle who at the age of 25 has more career sacks than Hall of Famer Warren Sapp and more money than any active defensive tackle save Haloti Ngata.
"With continuity comes expense. That's what everybody has been clamoring for. It's no different than the evolution of our coaching staff and what that costs the club in comparison to where we started in '03. It all comes in a commitment to winning daily. There's nobody that wants to win more and become world champions more than the man upstairs."
The man upstairs, of course, is Bengals president Mike Brown. As Lewis noted Monday at his news conference, the Bengals are now in the top five of NFL spending for this year. That will happen when Atkins is slated to get $18 million this season, $22 million over the next six months, and $36 million over the next three years.
If this team is defined by the defensive line and Atkins defines the defensive line, then the Atkins extension is also the textbook signing of this new era that Brown and Lewis ushered in together in the cold, uncertain days of the 2011 lockout. The Bengals drafted and developed Atkins, and he produced on and off the field with talent that improved, a team-first attitude, and a keep-your-mouth-shut work ethic. If you've been watching Hard Knocks, you know Brown thinks Atkins is the best at what he does.
"He has a vision of how he wants to do it and we're going to build through the draft and we share a common theme of that, which is good," Lewis said of Brown. "It's been great we've been able to get everybody in the building on board with that. We know we have to draft well. We know we have to develop our young guys. We have to play our young guys and develop our young guys. When you have the coaches committed to that, it makes everything run smoothly."
After Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn finished off the second-biggest deal in defensive line history, the Bengals have now spent about $140 million in cash this year over the $123 million salary cap.
"I don't think so," cornerback Leon Hall said when asked if there is now more pressure on this team. "Especially with the guys we've signed to this point. I don't think we have guys that say, 'I got paid, I made it, I'm good to go.' It's more like, 'I'm paid, I'm happy. Now let's go get some more. Let's go win games.' On this team, when you get a contract you're not at the end of the road. You want to keep going."
Hayes confirmed it after practice. Somehow Atkins, stereotype of the strong, silent type, seemed even more serious. Actually, Hayes felt his stare had a little bit more of a glare Monday.
"He wanted to know when exactly things were going on to make sure he was where he was supposed to be. It was his way of focusing in. Normally he just doesn't say much of anything when I talk to him," Hayes said. "Today he actually asked when this was going on and where we had to be for this. I mentioned to him that he has to be a leader now that this is happening and he said he will. You know him, he's not going to say much. Like I said, he's a high-character person and the room is that way, they're the type of men you want your sons to be like."
Hall should know. He's one of those high-character guys that got paid on the eve of the season when he joined offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kyle Cook with extensions just before the 2011 season. He knows the rookie Atkins in 2010 is more than a factor in the defense beginning to take off that year.
"He's a big reason," Hall said. "The way he overpowers offenses and takes control of the entire middle is pretty amazing, actually. It helps Domata. It helps the defensive end on the outside. It trickles down for sure."
No matter whom you ask in the locker room, they'll say the key to the league's sixth-ranked defense is Zimmer off the field, but on the field it begins with Atkins because it starts with the defensive line and the line starts with Atkins.
"He makes our defense go around," Peko said.
If anyone knows how important a three technique is, it's the nose tackle playing next to Atkins. Peko played nose in the regime previous to Zimmer, when the Bengals were more read-and-react two-gappers. Then when Zimmer arrived two years before Atkins in 2008, he eventually ended up with Tank Johnson as his 3.
"Our three technique didn't do a lot of penetrating," Peko said of the pre-Zimmer days. "It was a whole different philosophy. Before Geno came, we had Tank and he was more of a bigger guy and not as quick as Geno or as penetrating as Geno. So once Geno stepped in and took over those shoes, we got better."
When Hayes talks about how key Atkins is in Zimmer's scheme, it's pretty basic.
"For us in our scheme the three technique and Mike's term is to be like Sapp. If that gives you the importance of that," Hayes said. "It's a one–gap, primarily, but the three technique has some flexibility in his rush. He doesn't have to stay in the B-gap. He can go in the A-gap. He can go in the B-gap. He's the one guy in the front in a base call in our over front where he is just hitting and getting it. The other guys are playing blocks. He has to play blocks, too. But he's more of a penetrator in the front.
"You don't want four of those guys to be in a hat on a hat and then feet follow. He is a get-off, hands-in-front-of-his eyes, pushing-him-back. If we don't have a guy that can disrupt the front, it's going to be a long day."
That's how important Atkins is. Or, as The Dean, Robert Geathers and his 134 games along the Bengals defensive front said, "He makes the defense go. A three technique like that makes everybody else around him better. Keeps the backers clean, keeps the ends from getting extra looks. Without him, it gets harder."
But Brown and Lewis have not only filled up the front, but also the back seven, inking Harrison, and re-signing middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and regular cornerbacks Terence Newman and Adam Jones.
At 35 and 34, respectively, Harrison and Newman were tough sells and Maualuga's only backers were Brown, Lewis and Zimmer, and Lewis sold him hard. And Lewis thinks the Bengals have been rewarded with what he calls Maualuga's best preseason ever.
"(Brown) has gone on my recommendation on these players and you've got to appreciate that. It puts me out there with them," Lewis said. "I'm committed to them, they're committed to me and we made a financial commitment to them for the future."
Brown and Lewis have a nice little combo block going here. Lewis has been miffed throughout the offseason with critics grumbling about how much room the Bengals had under the salary cap and reinventing the Cheap Bengals narrative of another time.
"As far as I know, it's been blown up the last 11 years," Lewis said of the thrifty stereotype. "That's all I know. It's not fair and it's old news. The statute of limitations should have worn off."
Asked how far he's out there on that $180 million limb with Brown, Lewis smiled, "We're out there, but we're surrounded by good soldiers."
One of the generals just re-upped.