Domata Peko is now The Maestro of the Bengals defense when it comes to years of service.
Domata Peko, the Bengals' relentlessly jolly pied piper, rolls his fingers on the wood in front of him like the musician he is when his Bengals-best streak of 83 straight games is mentioned.
Peko was raised in the church playing a variety of instruments in a praise band and when he and his wife Anna feed Cincinnati's homeless while venturing into the tent cities or underneath the bridges, they'll sing worship songs. But football in the offseason has its own special tune.
"Praise God,' he says. "I'm going into my 10th season and I know how blessed I am. What you sow in the offseason is what you reap. If you're working hard in February or March or when other guys aren't working, you're going to have success."
It is Monday, the first day of Peko's second week back in the gym this offseason and we are sitting in the office of the man who runs Ignition Athletics, Clif Marshall, the place where Peko has trained for the last eight offseasons and where he has brought teammates like Rey Maualuga and Geno Atkins.
This is what Peko does. People, especially his teammates, follow the perpetually upbeat Peko. Peko calls everyone, "Uso," the Samoan term for "brother," and it is no surprise that the other guys on defense use it, too. He is, of course, "The Big Uso."
Now with his good friend and mentor Robert Geathers no longer on his defensive line and Michael Johnson suddenly back in his place, thanks to the vagaries of what they call the salary cap, Peko can't hide his excitement as the line tries to recapture its glory days that aren't so far gone.
With Geathers gone, Peko and Andrew Whitworth are the two senior Bengals. Since Whitworth arrived the day before Peko in the 2006 draft, he is The Dean now. But if he's the Dean, Peko is the Maestro.
"We're getting the old band back together," Peko says. "There were times last year we really needed (Johnson). A dude 6-7 with a wingspan like (Carlos) Dunlap. When you have two monsters like that coming off the edge…I remember so many times with those little passes and Mike would…oooh….bat them down. And he runs a 4.5, 4.6…
"He's part of The Brotherhood, one of the big pieces of the D-line that is going to get us better," says Peko, recalling how the line with Johnson set the tone for a No. 6 defense in 2012 and a No. 3 defense in 2013. "It was a mindset and the rotation where guys being fundamentally sound and just having that chemistry with one another. Relying on each other. Last year we took some hits, but it's not how you fall down. It's how you get back up. I have a lot of faith in our group and getting Mike back is a morale booster for us.
"I though near the end of last year we were getting that swagger back," Peko says. "The three-and-outs, the turnovers."
If anyone knows what Johnson meant to the line at right end, it's Peko, the man in the middle at nose tackle. Peko turned 30 late last season, but he continues to have the full faith and confidence of his coaches even if there are those outside the building that don't always acknowledge it.
"Tell them to sit in here with me and I'll show them what a nose guard does because he does what we need him to do," says defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "He plays hard, he chases the ball, he does all that stuff and he's one of the best at it. That's what all the people, every week when we play after the game, that's what they tell me."
Peko sees Johnson helping establish the seven- and eight-man rotation again, what he calls "getting the roll back." He also sees him making Dunlap more dangerous while helping revive Atkins and fitting into Geathers' versatile roles.
"Heck yeah," Peko says. "He'll get some of the chippers (extra blockers) off (Dunlap). When a tight end helps out on Carlos, it will free up Michael more. And my man Geno, I believe he's going to have a great year. At the end of last season, he was feeling stronger and better. Like his old self."
In '12, Atkins (12.5 sacks) and Johnson (11.5) sacks dominated. In '13, when Atkins missed half the season with a torn ACL, Johnson had 3.5 sacks. While Atkins struggled on the comeback trail, last year in Tampa Johnson had just four sacks. Now they're back together again healthy and Atkins gets an added bonus from his relationship with Johnson.
"He and Geno are tight. When the news came out, it went out in the mass text (to the defensive line) and Geno sent out a bunch of smiley faces. We're all pumped up," Peko says. "When Geno plays at that high level, we all get better. He makes us all look better. And we feed off each other. That's what makes our defensive line good. Everyone feeding off each other."
He also thinks Johnson gives defensive coordinator Paul Guenther another chip in the high stakes game of pressuring the quarterback, a part of the scheme that Guenther thrives on. In the last season of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's run here in '13, he used Johnson as an end who could sometimes drop and roam and give the quarterback another look.
"Now this is his first year under Paulie and I think he's going to give him a lot of defenses to write up," Peko says.
When Johnson came on his free-agent visit Saturday, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis knew exactly who to call. The Jolly Pied Piper. No one other than the Whitworths has hosted more teammates than the Pekos, but this time Lewis wanted him to join them for the recruiting dinner at Jeff Ruby's in downtown Cincinnati.
Peko and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga were going to take their kids bowling, but Peko always comes through. With help from Anna, they made the dinner.
"The kids were like, 'Mike Johnson is in town?'" Peko says. "Big Mike has been over the house plenty. I told him, '''if you called, I could have put you up.'"
Linebacker A.J. Hawk figures to make the visit to the Pekos at some point after he signed last week.
"I'm a big A.J. Hawk fan," says Peko, showing his Michigan State colors. "We came out the same year and I remember watching him at Ohio State. He's from the Big Ten, so you know he can play the run."
So can Peko. At 6-3, 322 pounds, Peko is a fire hydrant bursting with strength. He admits Atkins is stronger than him in the weight room. "Geno is one strong dude. He's a beast on the bench press," Peko says, but Marshall doesn't know if he's seen anyone take it out of the weight room better than Peko.
"We measure the squat, the bench, the dead lift and incline press," Marshall says. "But what I notice when we pull out the bags and we start punching and doing explosive medicine ball movement, he has elite functional strength. I've got a lot of guys in here that are stronger than him. I've worked with many stronger than him, but I haven't seen too many that can use the functional strength like he can at the snap of the ball and be able to turn it on all in one moment."
Monday was typical of the Monday-Wednesday-Friday routine before the offseason workouts start at Paul Brown Stadium April 20 under Bengals strength coaches Chip Morton and Jeff Friday. Upper body work in the weight room with the bench press, shrugs for the neck, pulls, and the incline press. Peko is big on core work so there are exercises like setups before going on the field for an hour to work on agility and speed.
And then there is the grueling finish with "The Woodway," a machine that elicits groans at the mere mention of the self-propelled treadmill. On this day, five 50-yard sprints must be run. Bengals safety Taylor Mays holds the record at 16.3 miles per hour. On Monday, Peko cranked 13.5 MPH. Or what Marshall calls, "Horsepower."
"For just his second week of workouts," Marshall says, "that certainly is a good sign."
Good signs are starting to pop up all over Peko's defensive line these days.