Every Monday and Wednesday, Geno Atkins and one of his understudies, second-year defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, would have a date in the weight room and go where no other Bengals would go.
Both can squat about 600 pounds. Both can bench press one rep in the 500-pound range with Thompson jacking it to 495. When asked if they were the two strongest Bengals, Thompson modestly offered, "Maybe so … we're pretty much neck-and-neck."
But there were no maybes about it this Monday after returning from a weekend off following Thursday's nightmarish Miami Halloween where the Bengals lost Atkins for the year with a torn ACL and the game with an overtime safety.
Thompson couldn't help but notice Atkins's absence right away in the locker room, not to mention the weight room.
"We compete every Monday and Wednesday in there. We push each other," said Thompson, leaving Paul Brown Stadium after his first day of the rest of his season. "We're just trying to make each other better. I want him to be a better player. He wants me to be a better player. We've had that kind of relationship since I've been here. It's good to have a player like that who has been around, as great as he is he can teach you so much.
"It was weird knowing he wasn't going to be in here today."
So Thompson shot Atkins a text telling him he was just thinking about him. To keep pushing and his teammates will be there for him when he gets back. The fallen keep growing. Atkins joins the dean of the line, Robert Geathers, on injured reserve.
"Geno and Robert, those are our brothers. We grind with those boys every day," Thompson said. "We spend more time with them than their own families do. So we grow a bond. And seeing those guys go out, it makes us want to work harder and become better for those guys. We're ready for it."* *
Thompson heard back from Atkins on Monday.
"He just (texted), 'Thanks man, just keep pushing, just stay in my playbook ... ' "
Then a wave of recognition passed over Thompson.
"Which I need to go get," he said as he headed back to his locker.
If Thompson is following Atkins's lead now that he'll be getting twice the snaps he was getting before, the Bengals showed their playbook to replace Atkins's spot on the roster by signing Raiders 2012 draft pick Christo Bilukidi on Monday.
The NFL later voided the contract because Bilukidi, a Canadian citizen, didn't have the proper paperwork, and it won't be for a week or two before he can get it processed and be eligible to sign. By then, the Bengals will have played their two most important games of the year with more to come and they need somebody Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Baltimore to give Thompson and Peko a break if Devon Still's elbow isn't ready.
That's why the Bengals didn't pursue veteran defensive linemen who weren't healthy or hadn't been with a team in training camp, preseason, or this season. Bilukidi, 23, a sixth-round pick in 2012, had played five games this season before being waived after playing 13 games last season.
The club will have someone in here for Wednesday's practice, but it isn't going to drastically alter the hierarchy.
This is a deal for Peko and Thompson on first and second down and maybe some on third down, which isn't ideal because they are basically nose tackles that stuff the run. The Bengals can swing right end Wallace Gilberry in there on passing downs for a few snaps, but he's not big enough to do it all the time. And they could try to move left end Carlos Dunlap in there for a few snaps in nickel, but that would impact the rest of the lineup.
The Bengals won't replace Atkins, but they'll try to use his snaps wisely and competently with people simply doing their jobs.
Right end Michael Johnson talked Monday about how a guy like Atkins helped his game, yet how his role continues.
"Same way he makes everybody better. He's a dominant force inside that demands attention," Johnson said. "Any time you've got somebody like that that brings pressure up the middle and demands attention in the middle, either in the pass game or the run game, it gives you more opportunities to be one-on-one. You just have to keep going. We can't think too much about it because he's not with us anymore. That's what it is. We're not going to wake up tomorrow and he's going to be here. We have to go."
And the 6-2, 325-pound Thompson politely reminds that he did get his first full NFL sack last Sunday against the Jets.
"I can get back there, now," Thompson said.
Johnson says Thompson can do more than that.
"He's no slouch; look at him," Johnson said. "He's a monster. Tough guy from South Georgia. Thomasville."
Not only that, Thompson is a third-round pick who learned his trade in 53 games at Clemson, where he had 4.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss. When he arrived in the 2012 draft, the education continued even though he played in just three games with what Thompson called "a redshirt."
"I got to see it, sit back, and be a sponge and just learn from everybody," Thompson said. "Geno and Domata taught me so much. I think that really helped and now they need me. It's my turn to step up."
Atkins saw Thompson work and then he went to work.
"I have a quick first step, so we worked on taking advantage of that and using that, and how to play off it," Thompson said.
"There was so much, but just learning how to be a pro. Learning how to come in and take care of your body. You have the whole day now. Back in college you had to take care of school, you had classes; you have a lot of stuff you had to manage. But here, it's just football. You have to learn how to watch more film, take care of your body and be an all-around player. Geno and Domata taught me so much about being more physical at the point of attack. Just being a more physical player. And that's really helped me so far."
Thompson wasn't any worse for wear after playing a career-high 36 snaps in Miami. He played as few as seven against New England and nine against Chicago, but did play 26 against the Jets and 17 in OT against the Bills. That's one of the things his elders have taught him: taking care of his body.
"You're always going to be banged up after a tough game, especially with the front that Miami has," he said. "I was a little banged up, but I went in and got my massages and got my therapy and I'm fine. I'm feeling great right now and I'm ready for a great week of practice."
But it's going to be him out there and not his buddy from the weight room who just happens to be a two-time Pro Bowler.
"I don't really see any pressure in it," Thompson said. "I understand Geno's a great player. I'm not going to try to come in and be Geno. I am who I am. I'm just going to work hard and do what I have to do."