Iron vs. Iron matchup

Geno Atkins

Clif Marshall, disciple of Bengals strength coach Chip Morton and trainer to the stars, isn't sure what's going to happen in Monday night's opener in Baltimore (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12 and ESPN) for the Bengals and Ravens.

But he's pretty sure how it's going to end at M&T Bank Stadium.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Bobbie leads both teams in the postgame prayer on the 50-yard line," Marshall said Friday of Ravens left guard Bobbie Williams. "That's how respected he is and how much respect he has for these guys."

Morton has the Biblical verse hanging in his weight room. "As Iron sharpens Iron, so one man sharpens another." Marshall brought it with him to the gym he runs in in Blue Ash, Ohio, at Ignition Sports, an offseason haven for NFL types in Cincinnati where strongmen like Williams and Bengals defensive tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins bond and buff.

"I'd say that Bobbie sharpened Domata and Geno and they did the same for him," Marshall said.

This is how the NFL works sometimes.

Williams, the mammoth and passionate right guard of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's program that brought Cincinnati three playoff berths in seven seasons, plays his first game for his new team against the Bengals in a new position at that he says makes his 13th season feel exciting and new. Whenever Williams lines up against Atkins, you're seeing probably the two strongest guys from last year's Bengals team.

During the lockout Marshall sent Atkins and Williams to the rack in their own group. They were going to be the only guys dead-lifting about 600 pounds five times and benching about 500 once.  

"He goes hard. He knows me and I know him. I'm looking forward to bumping heads with that big boy," Peko said. "You look at him and they don't make them better than that as far as being a professional."

"You know some of his tendencies, how physical he is, how long he's been in the game," Atkins said. "So he knows every trick of the trade. It will be a good matchup."

You could almost hear Williams smiling that Big-Bob-Bossman smile as he heard the guys were ready and excited to play their old friend. "Bossman" has been his nickname since Arkansas, and since then it's been tattooed to his body and stamped in the locker room.

"I'll be crazy to think anything less," Williams said Friday before dashing to one last meeting Friday afternoon in Owings Mills, Md. "I know how good those guys are and I'm finding out how respected they are around the league."

Peko, the nose tackle, is going to be glad to hear that. He thinks Atkins, the three-technique next to him heading into his third season, is, well …

"A beast," Peko said. "Geno is such a beast. He's one of the most underrated guys in the league. They don't give him enough credit. I'm really stoked to play next to him because he dominates the whole time. He makes me better. He makes the whole defense better."

In a way, Monday Night is kind of Atkins's Coming Out Bash. It's his first regular-season game since sharing last year's NFL's interior sack title with Oakland's Tommie Kelley and starting the Pro Bowl at age 23. He turned 24 in March and you still can't block him. Finally, Peko has a tag-team partner to match those big, bad Ravens that have been making life miserable for the Bengals ever since Rob Burnett sacked Akili Smith with a hit so quick it came under his chin.

If the Ravens have the enormous (330 pounds) yet elastic Haloti Ngata as a Pro Bowl nose tackle anchoring, the Bengals have the 6-3, 320-pound Peko and the 6-1, 300-pound Atkins running. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh hasn't underrated Atkins.

"They play a different type game. Haloti is a bigger guy," Harbaugh said this week. "Geno is so quick and so athletic. He's disruptive in every way. He's a great pass rusher. He led the league in inside sacks last year. He's really hard to cut off. He's really hard to reach. It's hard to block him."

This is how the NFL works sometimes.

Atkins has also been sharpening Williams's successor at right guard, first-round pick Kevin Zeitler. Williams missed last season's final four games with a dislocated ankle and combined with his age (he turns 36 in 18 days), the Bengals wanted to go younger and chose not to re-sign the man that started 120 of 131 games since he signed as a free agent from the Eagles in 2004.

The split has been amicable. In fact, even though Williams was a free agent the Bengals gave him permission to mend at Paul Brown Stadium with Nick Cosgray, the team's director of rehab. It turns out Cosgray got Williams ready to play the Bengals on Opening Monday Night.

"I definitely have no ill will. I've got the utmost respect for the Brown family and Marvin Lewis," Williams said. "Those guys (my former teammates) are my friends. I mean, this is work but there is also having friends and they're my friends."

Zeitler has been as advertised. Solid. Smart. A 10-, 12-year player. But as the coaches watched him grapple with Atkins early on, they weren't too sure.

"I credit Geno a lot with Kevin's development," said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "He took a lot of lumps in training camp and scared the hell out of us. 'Oh my God, who did we draft?' But he got better and better because of (Atkins). Just watching Geno play, we're glad he's on our team. He's a force. A very low center of gravity. Very hard to get underneath and block. Hard to move out in the running game and hard to (pass protect) because he gets down so low and very quick."

When the Bengals spun out of control on and off field the field from '06-'08, Williams and Peko were two of the guys that helped hold it together. Atkins is one of the many young leaders that has joined the charge to that side of the locker room and been responsible for The Renaissance.

Among the three of them, there might not three words spoken Monday night. Atkins hasn't noticed his Pro Bowl berth heightening his profile any. If Justin Smith is "The Last American Badass" as proclaimed by Sports Illustrated, then Atkins is the "Latest Bengals Good Egg."

"It didn't make much difference; it's all good," Atkins said. "I just like doing my job. Play within the scheme and everything should work for itself. For the team."

This is the way it works sometimes in the NFL. Atkins has been helping Zeitler the way Williams helped him.

"He showed me the ropes my rookie year," Atkins said. "He encouraged me to keep going. What to do. What to look for in offensive line stances, stuff like that."

Atkins is watching tape on Williams and the rest of the Ravens, but he doesn't limit his viewing to offense. He's got what he calls a "sack tape," and while he admires Ngata, he's not on it.

"Warren Sapp, John Randle. Guys like that Three techniques. My position," Atkins said. "Darnell Dockett. He's a good penetrator."

And you can be sure Williams is watching tape, although he's had years of practice against the guys on the screen. If there's one guy not underrating Atkins, it's his lifting partner.

"There aren't too many guys like Geno built the way he's built," Williams said. "He has the strength of the taller guys. He's built for explosiveness."

The specter of youth hasn't escaped Williams in Baltimore, where second-round pick Kelechi Osemele is said to be pushing him. But after 151 NFL games at right guard, Williams sounds like a kid himself talking about the transition to left.

"It's a new experience and I'm just going out and having fun," he said. "You learn something new. It's like starting all over again. You step the opposite with your feet and after that you do it with the hips. Feet and hips. That's the beauty of it. You train and you get a good response with your body. The ankle has been fine."

Marshall believes him when Williams continues to tell him he's going to make Mason, Ohio in suburban Cincinnati his home after he's done playing. He also believes him when he tells him how well he wants to play Monday.

"But I know after he's done going against those guys," Marshall said, "he'll want to hang (a hug) around their necks."

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