Domata Peko (above) and Robert Geathers keep setting the table up front.
After Saturday's Family Day practice, Domata Peko sat down next to the locker of Robert Geathers Jr. and just watched.
Geathers hosted his son Robert Geathers III and little RGIII, respectful, polite, and inquisitive, did what six-year-olds do. He patiently answered a question about school, but he was looking for signatures on his little orange helmet. He said "Wow," when he held his dad's much heavier orange helmet with the stripes and as he looked in his locker he gaped at the mountain range of shoes.
Peko just watched with a smile and said to no one in particular, "That's what it's all about."
He was talking about life, but he could have been talking about the circle of life on the Bengals defensive line. After all these years and all these changes, they are still what makes this playoff team hum and spit and contend in the NFL's toughest division.
"It's been like a wave," Peko said. "A constant rotation."
Geathers and Peko are the two oldest now. Geathers turns 31 Monday and the Bengals most senior member is quietly (always quietly with Junior) five games away from passing offensive line icon Dave Lapham with 141 games on the club's list. And, like Lapham, he'll wordlessly play anywhere the coaches like year after year.
Peko got here two years after Geathers in 2006 and missed just five games in the middle of it all at nose tackle before signing his third contract back in March at the tender age of 29.
"The old guys,' said Peko with a laugh, "are 29-year-olds."
But like everyone else on this defensive line, can they still play as they wait for the return of their centerpiece, two-time Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins.
On the first series of Thursday night's preseason opener in Kansas City, Peko and Pro Bowl Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict combined to trip up running back Jamaal Charles on third-and-two. On the second series, Geathers surfaced for the first time since missing all but two games last season with a torn triceps muscle and registered a sack and strip that end Carlos Dunlap corralled at the Chiefs 16 to set up a field goal. Then on the next series, a big kickoff return backed them up on their own 25, but they gave only a field goal.
"A good start for us. It will keep getting better," Peko said.
This is how life has been for this defense the last five years or so. There have been three straight top ten finishes, four in the last five years, and the names may be starting to change up front but the idea is the same. Wallace Gilberry came in off the street in early 2012 and has added 14 sacks in 30 games as a Bengal playing up and down the line. Brandon Thompson, a third-round pick in 2012, pinch hit for Atkins over the last half of last season and has blossomed into stingy run stuffer with some surprising pass-rush push. Left end Margus Hunt, a 2013 second-round draft project from Estonia and track, is looking like he's starting to figure it out. Rookie right end Will Clarke, the third-round pick from West Virginia, looked active in his first 22 snaps.
"They got after it little bit. That's why they're here," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "Domata and Junior are the leaders of the group. Carlos is starting to pick it up more and more. Wallace is the wild card. They're all old enough to know what to do. They get each other going. It's more of a peer pressure presence thing with them. Domata and Junior are the voice of reason, you might say."
It can be a joke or a needle or a flat-out statement. Or, like this:
Geathers caught Gilberry holding court with the media before Family Day and as he walked by he asked softly, "Wallace Gilberry not practicing?"
"How's the family Rob?" Gilberry shot back.
Hayes believes Peko is coming off one of his finest years, if not the finest, in a relentless career he has missed just five games while being a staple among the league's interior players for tackles as he rides a 51 games played streak including playoffs. Geathers has played virtually every spot on the defensive line, ranging from third-down double-digit edge rusher to SAM linebacker. He may reprise every role at some point this season.
"He's just such a good player. He can do anything across the board," Hayes said. "He can do all the coverage stuff. Her can pass rush, he can play the run. He is an all-around player and he has always been. A true pro."
But beyond what they do on the field is the tone they set daily. Geathers and Peko just show up every day like an internet browser. Steady. Reliable. 24-7. And so that's the approach for everybody else.
"When Geno is being Geno, he's the lead dog. But with him being out, we don't even think about it," Gilberry said. "We line up, we get the call and we execute. There's not much talking that goes on. I know it seems right around the corner, but we still have three preseason games left. The drawing board is still full of mistakes, still full of corrections."
There is a transition as they move on from Michael Johnson, the solid and steady three-down right end who left for Tampa in the offseason, as well as their creator, new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. But the Kansas City game provided a peek on how they're going to move on with Gilberry starting at right end, then Geathers moving in for a series, then Dunlap coming over from left end as Gilberry and Geathers move up and down the line while Hunt gets his shots at left end.
More and more Geathers, like Gilberry, has been sliding inside. With the return of Atkins expected for the regular season, they'll also be taking their turns outside as new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, Zimmer's third-down specialist, searches for just the right matchup.
"You get to see things coming off the edge a little better. Things happen inside (at tackle) a little quicker," Geathers said. "You get to use your athletic ability against the guards more (inside). It's been a work in progress for me because I've been outside for so long. Certain matchups you kind of lick your chops.
"You want to put everybody in a position to win. Whatever a person is good at, that's our philosophy and Zim did the same thing, so we're picking up where we left off. Paulie is going to be looking more for certain matchups."
Atkins' loss was devastating, but they also wonder how good they can be with him after they finished No. 3 in the NFL playing without him for half of 2013. Thompson has had a terrific camp and Hayes and head coach Marvin Lewis are talking about him with big smiles.
"We've got two big old dudes in there," Peko said. "Brandon came here as a nose guard, he's a big dude. But he can play the three (technique) like the best of them. You've got two run-stopping dudes in there. It's hard to move us. That's what we've been doing around here. It's been like a wave, a constant rotation. Jay has been great working it out so we don't get tired. Our backups come in and they hold it down like we were out there."
This is the culture Clarke has walked in to. And as a three-time winner in the West Virginia weight room for work ethic as well as production, he's looking like a natural fit.
"Since my first week with the team, Peko and Rob have given me advice," Clarke said. "Even Gil and Carlos. "Actually the whole defensive line. What to do. When to do it. Meeting times. Always going full go. That camera is always going to be on you. You always have to do something that stands out."
Geathers has noticed.
"He reminds me of Michael," Geathers said. "Hard worker. Smart good. He'll be good."
That's what life is all about. On this defensive line, anyway.