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Defensive speed closes generation gap

Geno Atkins gives chase to Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. (AP photo)

His coach at Georgia used to call him "GenoDolla" because when Geno Atkins started out at defensive tackle he said he wasn't worth a dime.

But he progressed so fast that the coach started calling him "GenoDolla" because he had become worth a dollar. By the time the Bengals took Atkins in the fourth round back in April, he was calling Atkins "Geno Stacks of Dollas" and that's why they call him just "Stacks."

Atkins keeps raising the stakes every time he takes the field so that by the end of this rookie year they may be calling him "Stocks." He kept the streak going Friday night when he sacked Eagles backup quarterback Michael Vick early in the second half, giving him at least one sack in all three of his NFL preseason games.

If you want to know how fast these young Bengals defenders are as they try to race into the lineup, take note in the Bengals 22-9 victory at Paul Brown Stadium that they sacked Vick three times and intercepted him twice. The effort backed up what their elders did in the first half, holding the potent Eagles offense to two field goals and just one first down on seven third-down tries.

And if you don't think Vick is as fast since he got out of jail, don't tell that to the kids that also kept Philadelphia out of the end zone as the Eagles finished two-of-15 on third down.

"Shoot. Get low. Get low," said second-year linebacker Michael Johnson when asked what he was thinking when he came face-to-face in the open field with Vick scooting out of the pocket. "It's Vick, you know what I mean? I grew up watching Vick juke people and make them miss.

"Who didn't watch Vick, man? He was the dude. Every time he went on the field, he was doing something. He's still the one. He's still all of that. Don't let him fool you."

And just how athletic is the 6-7 Johnson? With Vick juking and dancing, Johnson bought a fake to one side, but his wingspan allowed him to dig his foot into the ground and upend Vick after a nine-yard gain.

"Knee-bender," Johnson said. "I'm so long that I was able to get over there. But I was mad that he got that many yards before I was able to get to him. He didn't say anything to me. I just said to myself, 'Hey, I just tackled Mike Vick.' "

Vick may not be the guy that MJ93 and Stacks grew up watching and was on the cover of Madden. But he can still move and the Bengals' kids stayed with him pretty much step-for-step. Yes, he did his thing with 36 yards on three carries, but 12 of them came harmlessly on a scramble on a third-and-17. Nine came on Johnson's play, and 13 came in the first half when he was running the Wildcat.

But not only did Atkins get Vick, he helped second-round pick Carlos Dunlap get his first NFL sack while working at end. Veteran linebacker Brandon Johnson had the other sack, and Atkins forced safety Kyries Hebert's interception when he smashed into Vick as he threw the ball.

"He's very fast, very fast," Atkins said. "We wanted to make sure we contained him. That was our mindset. Watching the boot(leg), the rollout. He's at his best running out of the pocket, so we wanted to try and keep him in there."

Atkins admitted that when he found himself sacking a guy he saw so much as a kid on TV, that it was a little weird to him. But when he did haul Vick down, Atkins was more relieved than anything.

"It was a really surreal experience," Atkins said. "That play, I was chasing him. I was thinking I was lucky he didn't run away from me."

Not many have in Atkins' brief career here in which he leads the Bengals in nicknames. During his first weekend with the team at rookie camp, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and line coach Jay Hayes dubbed him "Tasmanian Devil" and shortened it to "Taz" because he never stops his motor that tortures his foes. On Friday working with the backups Atkins had three more tackles, two more for loss, two quarterback hurries, and a pass defensed.

Those 3.5 sacks are a pretty significant number even if they have come in the second half of preseason games. The last Bengals rookie defensive tackle to have at least that in the regular season? Dan Wilkinson 16 years ago when he had 5.5 the year he was the first overall pick in the draft. No one has blocked Atkins since he arrived.

Call him the Anti-Big Daddy, too. Atkins was supposed to be too small at 290 pounds.

"I work hard in practice and that makes it a smooth transition into the game," Atkins said.

Johnson's transition from defensive end to SAM continues to go smoothly, and he played both Friday night in ending up with four tackles (second only to Brandon Johnson's six on the team) and his obligatory one pass defensed a game.

Zimmer wouldn't have stood for anything less after two subpar outings against Dallas and Denver. He railed on the defense in a short week he made longer by reminding them not to read their press clippings and that they were soft when it came to competing. That they had lost the edge that made them the NFL's fourth-best defense, he challenged them.

"He reminded us how we got there," safety Chris Crocker said. "How we've got to be smart. We hadn't been playing smart and that's what he wanted to see."

The vets regrouped and the kids re-energized them in a game they all held a proven offensive scheme to just 270 yards.

And on a night the game got blacked out, the kids got a chance to sack the guy on their television set.

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