Inside job


Geno Atkins

At 6-1, 300 pounds, Geno Atkins's center of gravity is so low the guards need shovels.

His motor is so high that it took Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer just one rookie minicamp to nickname him "Taz" after "The Tasmanian Devil."

His future is so limitless that his dad, 10-year NFL safety Gene Atkins, had to go back to his day to come up with a player of similar stature and psyche.

"Sam Mills didn't have height but that didn't matter because of the way he played," Gene Atkins said Wednesday night of the late Pro Bowl linebacker that was his teammate on the Saints of the late '80 and early '90s. "He played hard all the time and he studied enough that he knew all the cracks and angles to make a play and Geno is that same kind of student of the game."

In just his second season Geno Atkins, the Bengals relentless and reticent three technique, shares the NFL lead for sacks by a defensive tackle with 5.5 and is about to bull rush some Bengals records into fine print.

To mention the Pro Bowl isn't a disservice because he mans a very important position in the interior of the Bengals 4-3. Three more sacks and Atkins will break Dan Wilkinson's 16-year-old club record for most sacks by a tackle.

"Zim and Jay Hayes, our D-line coach, are always talking about how important the three technique is in our defense," said nose tackle Domata Peko, who plays next to Atkins. "The three technique has to be quick, explosive. He's got to be our Warren Sapp. I'm happy for him. He's having a great year."

Right guard Bobbie Williams, dean of the offense who has dueled with Atkins in practice on occasion, offered a "wow" when told of the stats.

"I hope he takes some of us over the water with him," said Williams, using the locker room euphemism for that NFL all-star game in Hawaii. "He's very strong. He's able to get underneath legs and keep running. And he's improving in his run stopping."

Left end Robert Geathers, dean of the defense, was a few years ahead of Atkins at Georgia. But he heard about him from his brother: the strong silent type.

"They called him 'Gargoyle.' Why? Because he looks like one," said Geathers, unable to keep the laugher pent up before Wednesday's practice.

Then, quite seriously, Geathers outlined why Atkins is dominating things after just 26 games in the NFL and a fourth-round selection out of Athens two years ago.

"He's got all the tools. He's not long and rangy, but he's quick and explosive," Geathers said. "He's very strong and he's short, so he's got leverage and he gets under guys. He gets a good bull rush and then when they sit down on the bull rush, he goes around them."

Then there is Gene Atkins, dean of disaster when he doled out hits in 143 games in New Orleans and Miami as a savvy, savage safety.

"I don't hit as hard as my dad," Geno said.

"The way I see him," the father said from home in Atlanta, "is that he has the speed and moves of a defensive back in a lineman's body. He's always been like that even as a little boy. Natural strength and I was like that. Pound for pound (195), I was the strongest guy on the team."

Back in the day, 5-11 Gene Atkins could more than double himself and bench press 410 pounds. Two years ago when Zimmer and Hayes fell in love at the NFL scouting combine Geno mastered the 225-pound bar 36 times while plowing through a 4.8-second 40-yard dash.

"Same body type as me," Gene Atkins said. "Just bigger. How fast did I do the 40? At the beginning of my career or the end? OK, OK. 4.6, 4.7. Yeah, it would be close. That's what I'm telling you. Speed, but in a lineman."

Geno Atkins says that one of the reasons he plays not only like his hair is on fire, but like the balls of his feet and his pancreas are aflame, too, is that his father always told him "what it would take to play in the league."

That's about all you're going to get out of Geno.

Ask him what he thinks about being tied with Oakland's Tommie Kelly and Philadelphia's Cullen Jenkins for DT sack leaders and he'll say, "Pretty good."

Ask him how and he'll say, "Pretty good team effort. Either Carlos (Dunlap), or Michael Johnson or Frostee (Rucker) get by somebody and I'm there to get the sack. Or the secondary makes the quarterback hold the ball longer with good coverage."

Sounds too good to be true, right? A blue-collar, no-frills star. Something out of the movies, right?

Now you can get him talking.

Geno Atkins loves movies. He'll grab teammates like Dunlap and tight end Jermaine Gresham, and go see the latest releases. He's already seen a "A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas," and he thinks "Immortals" is one of the best he's seen in a while. But his favorite of all-time is "The Departed."

Atkins liked the cast, "Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon," but his favorite actor is Christian Bale.

"I like the Terminator and Batman stuff,' he said.

Movies?

"You meet Geno and he's so laid back and quiet and you have to ask him. 'You play football?' " Gene Atkins said. "But then he gets on the field and he becomes a completely different person.  He doesn't hang out in the streets. He doesn't get in trouble. There are some guys that can't separate off the field and on the field. But Geno has always been able to do that."

On Sunday, Cleveland is going to challenge Geno on the field with two guards in rookie Jason Pinkston and second-year man Shawn Lauvao. It won't be their inexperience that hurts them against Atkins, although it won't help, but it could be their height. Pinkston is 6-4 and Lauvao is 6-3.

"He's a shorter defensive lineman and that gives him good leverage against those 6-3, 6-4 offensive guards around the league with that low center of gravity," Peko said.

The one guy that can get Geno talking is Gene. Geno admits that maybe one of the reasons the transition to the pros has been so smooth for him is that he grew up around it. His name is an heirloom from those days in the New Orleans locker room, when he was three years old and tottering while wearing his dad's helmet and general manager Jim Finks and head coach Jim Mora tagged him "Little Geno," and somehow it stuck.

They do their talking on the phone, where Geno says he and his father speak about every other week.

"We talk about how he's playing, but I don't do the talking. I want him to do the talking," Gene Atkins said. "I'm not the guy out there playing. He's the guy out there playing, so I'll ask him questions. That gets him talking about it and studying the game. It's another way to work his craft."

Shhh.

This movie has just started.

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