Geno Atkins is looking like Geno Atkins again. Maybe even better. After practice Tuesday, Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes offered a whistle longer than LeBron’s minutes when asked just exactly how good Atkins has looked this spring.
“Scary,” Hayes said. “It’s scary how fast and explosive he is right now. I think he has the confidence that he has his legs under him. He feels like he did.”
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who challenged Atkins publicly and privately after last season, agrees and believes Atkins is primed ‘for a big year.”
“He looks as good as any guy we’ve got on our team. On the defensive side at least,” Guenther said. “He’s real explosive. He looks strong. He looks as good as he’s ever had. I’m proud of the way he’s come back. He gives us a huge boost. Huge. You’re talking about one of the elite players in the league.”
All of which has to put a kick step into Bengaldom after a season Atkins was decidedly un-Geno with just three sacks. The rehab from the Halloween ACL tear that ended his 2013 season sapped all his time from the weight room last offseason and his lack of a power game played with the confidence in his knee.
But all of that looks to be a faint memory right now. After a normal offseason he seems to look like, well, Geno.
“You can see it,’ said Hayes of the strength work. “He looks like himself. He looks as quick and as fast I’ve seen him.”
Right end Michael Johnson, Atkins’ good friend, spent last season in Tampa Bay. But in 2012 and 2013, he watched Atkins eat up enough linemen to become the best inside pass rusher in the game, a Pro Bowl anchor, and for Johnson, time is frozen.
“He’s Geno. He looks better, older, wiser, savvier,” Johnson said. “He’s just being himself. He looks like Geno to me.”
The confidence in Atkins mirrors Guenther’s growing confidence in a defense he feels is deeper than last season’s unit that couldn’t overcome a cascade of injuries. He points to up front and the revival of Atkins, the return of Johnson and tackle Pat Sims, and the emergence of Will Clarke behind Johnson at right end. Plus there is the seamless transition of veteran Packers free agent A.J. Hawk at linebacker and the scrum at cornerback involving four first-rounders.
And, his Tuesday trip downstairs to watch Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict rehab had Guenther enthused. He pointed to his agenda he has taped up in his office called The Burfict Plan, which ends in capital letters on Sept. 13: BEAT OAKLAND!
“He’s really going after it. He wants it. He looks good,” said Guenther of the hope that Burfict’s micro fracture knee surgery heals well enough for him to start the opener.
“We have guys that have played at some point and not just on the defensive line,” Guenther said. “You look at cornerbacks and linebackers and with the depth we have you can sleep easier on Saturday nights knowing you’re not one injury away from playing with guys that haven’t played here.”
Hayes knows a big key to getting the defense back into the top ten like 2011-2013 is a seven, eight-man rotation up front. Last year they felt like they could play just five with the departure of Johnson and Clarke’s developmental path after they took him in the third round out of West Virginia.
But with Johnson back and Wallace Gilberry now able to play both end and tackle, that gives Hayes five, plus tackle Brandon Thompson for six. And if Clarke plays like he had practiced this spring, Hayes says he has found his seventh.
“The way he’s been practicing? No question,” Hayes said. “He understands where he’s supposed to be in the defense and he’s bigger and stronger. You can see that confidence.”
Guenther was impressed right away when Clarke showed up this year at 290 pounds when they told him he had to put on 20 pounds this past offseason after he arrived somewhere between 270-275.
“He looks like a different player,” Guenther said. “I have confidence in these guys that we’re able to go in there and play at a high level. I really, really think we can have one of the best (lines) in the league.”
They all know it stems from Geno starting to look like Geno, again.