Posted: 1:35 p.m.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Robert Geathers turned 26 Tuesday and that's more than a little local note. The man believed to be the youngest Bengal ever when he was drafted at the age of 20 is now the most senior man in his dorm room and on the defensive line here at Georgetown College.
Fellow defensive end and roommate Antwan Odom is 27, but Geathers has played in 10 more NFL games. Defensive tackle Tank Johnson is also 27, but with 70 games he's played four fewer than Geathers.
Another roommate, defensive tackle Pat Sims, is in his second season. And the other roommate, well, Michael Johnson is such a kid at 22 that Geathers mentored Johnson's mentor, a former Georgia Tech defensive end named Eric Henderson.
"But I'm still young," said Geathers, coming off serious microfracture knee surgery. "No setbacks. It's coming along according to plan. I'm not 100 percent yet, but I'm almost there."
The last time the Bengals had a pass rush that really mattered? That really made a difference? They had 41 sacks the year Geathers was born (1983), a number reached only twice in the '90s and never in head coach Marvin Lewis' six seasons. In the past two seasons they've failed to even combine for 40.
Now Geathers looks around this line and pronounces it the most talented he's been on. "We've got chemistry," he says.
That is going to be a must because defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer appears to be going to a sleight of hand to unlock the sackless doldrums. With Mike Johnson a once-in-a-decade physical specimen, Antwan Odom carrying the big checkbook, and Tank Johnson a big man with a unique inside pass rush, Zimmer has indicated he's going to put his 11 best pass rushers on the field on passing downs no matter their position.
That's three defensive ends and Zimmer is dealing them from the top, middle and bottom of the deck.
"They want to get us all on the field at the same time," Geathers said. "Mix it up a little bit with different looks. We'll be all over the place. I think moving around will help me. With Mike coming off one side and some pushing the quarterback (up the middle) that's going to help me and I should be able to help them."
This year Geathers has been seen at times standing up, where he did for a month in '07 when the backers were buried by injury. He's also been at left end, where his 10.5 sacks in '06 marked the first time in nearly 15 years a Bengal had double digits.
The drafting of Mike Johnson has everyone excited. Geathers has taken him under his wing as a guy that can both play standing up and in a stance and has been impressed by what the rookie has done despite all that's on his plate. Geathers sees himself as a defensive end "who can do the athletic things linebacker can do," but he sees Johnson as a linebacker that can play all over.
"We all want the same thing," Geathers said. "I think that's going to make a difference. Antwan, Tank. We've all had years where we haven't been as productive as we have been. We want to get back to where our numbers were before and be respected among our peers. When I set foot on the field I want offenses to have to account for me."
It's too early for Zimmer to talk about schemes. What he wants to see first on Friday is the attention to pass rush technique he hammered into them during the offseason.
"Last year we got punched in the chest a lot," Zimmer said. "As soon as you get punched, your feet stop and it's over. So we're trying to eliminate that. That's one of the big keys I'm looking forward to Friday night."
With the Bengals pass rush getting a nice test in Friday's opener in New Orleans against a Saints offense that threw for 5,000 yards last season while posting the second-best sacks-per-pass ratio in the league, now is a good time to look at the curious case of Robert Geathers Jr., aka "Junior," aka "Jumpy."
Go back to the night of Sept. 10, 2007 when he looked for all the world as if he was about to become one of the game's dominant defenders. Coming off that 0.5-sack season, Geathers led the Bengals season-opening win by logging a stat in every defensive category.
But in the 31 games since he's had just five sacks. And it's far from all his fault.
In '07 injures dictated Geathers move to SAM linebacker for a month and he did it without saying a word. Last year sacks were so rare because the Bengals offense was on pace for much of the season to score even fewer points than their expansion cousins of 1968.
With right end Justin Smith gone last year and Odom hurt for much of it in his spot, it was a no-brainer for offensive lines to slide toward Geathers in the rare instance the Bengals knew the other team had to pass.
"Junior's got tremendous physical ability," said Lewis before Wednesday's practice. "He's demonstrated it. He can play on his feet. I think he'd be a fine 3-4 outside linebacker. He's got the ability to learn that stuff and he did two years ago. I think Robert's at that point. Everybody wants to point (the finger). Based on what your responsibilities, sometimes it means you're not going to get sacks but it doesn't mean you're not a good player. Sacks come in bunches and unfortunately that's all a lineman is measured by sometimes."
A good year for Geathers?
"A good year for Robert Geathers?" he repeated. "I don't look at numbers out there. But if we're winning and being a difference-maker. Being a disruptor on third down and helping get the defense off the field. Make the offense account for me on every play. They have to find where I am. Put two guys on me."
Geathers may be only 26, but it seems like he's been around so long that he's 36. And he sounds 46 because he knows Zimmer's schemes are only going to accomplish so much.
"He can put me in position," Geathers said. "But I've got to take it from there. He can't make me a Pro Bowler. That's on me."