Geno stalks an encore


Geno Atkins

You want to know why Geno Atkins looks like a Division II middle linebacker, has arms shorter than a Tavon Austin 40-yard dash, walks like your uncle on the beach, and yet is the best defensive tackle in the National Football League?

We are standing on the field inside Ignition Sports on Wednesday watching a group of linebackers and linemen run about 50 yards up and down the field and then back again pushing a sled saddled with 200 pounds. There are some grunts and grimaces and grinding and then there is Atkins.

He is easily whisking the thing over the carpet like a vacuum cleaner. When he gets to the finish and turns it around for the next guy, he might as well be spinning an empty shopping cart into the Home Depot parking lot corral.

After a few passes in the aisle, this is about the time Bengals defensive end Robert Geathers says, "Look at him. Built to work. Bulldog."

Atkins shrugs after his shopping spree.

"I'm working underneath," he says. "Using my feet and lower body to push."

This is about the time one of the Ignition coaches, Ben Creamer, says, "They talk about genetic freaks. There he is. Geno is a genetic freak."

There are a lot of reasons why the 6-1, 300-pound Atkins is a Pro Bowler. Power and a bottomless well of a motor. But start with raw, uncut strength. Everything else flows from there.

"I call it country strength," Creamer says. "Natural. Like a farmer who has been doing it his whole life."

There are other reasons, too, of course.

Clif Marshall, the disciple of Bengals strength coach Chip Morton who runs Ignition, the Mason, Ohio gym, hosts up to 30 NFL players before the teams can officially welcome back them back into their facilities for offseason workouts this month, and Atkins is not only his most decorated with back-to-back Pro Bowls. He also happens to have the best attendance of any pro during the last two years during those stretches the Paul Brown Stadium weight room is closed per the collective bargaining agreement.

The doors open Monday when the offseason workouts begin at PBS and Atkins figures to lead back a field of vets that will have close to 100 percent attendance.  

"It's a small piece of the puzzle, but he's gaining an edge on the competition when the completion is not working," Marshall is saying Wednesday during the sweaty shuffle of drills. "I also think the stuff he's doing with Chip Morton and the strength staff down there has helped him."

But there is always time to needle. Especially if you are Geathers and Atkins, Georgia products six years apart on a record-setting Bengals defensive front that has gone untouched in free agency.

"I put on my Georgia gear and I get mistaken for Geno," smiles the 6-3 Geathers. " 'Hey Geno!' No, no. He's a little more compact than me."

Atkins is taking the bait and smiling back, ticking off all the members of the Geathers family that have played in the league, or are about to.

"Look at his build," he says, zeroing in on the sleek, lean Geathers. "He was bred to play. Kwame. Clifton. His dad. They were all bred to play. His son is going to do it."

Geathers shakes his head.

"We had to try extra hard; you don't have to," Geathers counters. "Everybody thinks you have to be long and lean. You don't. Look here. Look at his arms. You can be wing-footed, short and quick."

Finally, Geathers surrenders.

"No doubt he's the best defensive tackle in the league," he says. "And look at him. He looks like a fullback."

Atkins walks away laughing and he's looking forward to more. While he began his workouts last month, he watched his ends, Geathers, Michael Johnson, and Wallace Gilberry, re-up for at least another year on a defensive line that led the Bengals to a franchise-record 51 sacks. The rotation up front set the tone for a defense that finished sixth in the league and the continuity can put designs on more.

"It's good to be able to keep the chemistry. I think we're going to be good up front like we were last year," Atkins says. "You want everybody back because we're all so familiar with each other. You know everybody's tendencies, what everybody likes to do. Mike knows I push the pocket, so he can take an inside rush and he'll know I'll cover him. Stuff like that because we are really familiar with each other."

As usual, Atkins has no special offseason goals in mind. Except one. He hopes he doesn't go to his third straight Pro Bowl.

"This year the Super Bowl in New Jersey," he says. "I want the ring."

Other than that he says, "I just want to get better." Fine. But how? How do you get better than 12.5 sacks? A total that led all NFL tackles and was more than any Bengal had in three decades?

"Focus on the details," he says. "Listen to coaching. Proper technique. Play within the system. No selfish rushes. Do those things and anything can happen."

Marshall is watching those fundamentals play out. He also hosts potential rookies and one of them is Indiana defensive tackle Larry Black Jr., a graduate of Wyoming High School in suburban Cincinnati who has been invited to next Tuesday's Bengals pro day for local prospects.

Black, 23, has been a big Bengals fan as long as he can remember.

"I loved Chad, T.J., all those guys, and I used to love Carson," he says. "The guys on the defensive line. Geathers. (Domata) Peko. My favorite team."

He's old enough to say, "I was a big Carl Pickens guy," but also young enough to say when Marshall introduced him to Atkins, "It was a dream come true."

"He's the best tackle in the game. He's a hard-worker, a real down to earth guy," Black says. "I'm trying to pick his brain and learn the things that can help me with my game. He's taught me so much. He's already talking to me about my first two steps and hand placement and pad level and just being the first guy off the ball all the time."

Now is there any wonder how Atkins got to be a two-time Pro Bowler with the non-Geathers measurements?

He's also fine-tuning his timing while developing a Pro Bowl needle.

"Even old man Rob," he says of the intact rotation.

Let the workouts begin.

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