GEORGETOWN, Ky. — Rex Ryan, Joe Namath if he grew up to be the Jets head coach, blustered Wednesday about how scary the Jets look with his new receiving corps of Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason joining Santonio Holmes. Three AFC North refugees that have all done damage against the Bengals.
A formidable test, no doubt, but on Sunday in New Jersey in their second preseason game (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), the Bengals are looking at New York's physical running game that has plowed them for 200 yards per the three games Ryan's teams have played them. Now with promising second-year player Geno Atkins officially getting promoted from pass-rush specialist to three-down player at defensive tackle, the matchup becomes a welcome measuring stick for coaches attempting to evaluate their intriguing but evolving defensive line.
"(Atkins) has been doing a good job in the running game," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes this week. "It's a great test for him this week. This is what they do. They run the ball. If he holds up against them, we have a chance."
Not only is there the 23-year-old Atkins coming off a three-sack rookie season, but 24-year-old Clinton McDonald, who has labored for two years on the fringes of the roster at tackle, is emerging from a Player of the Game performance in Detroit with eight tackles and a forced fumble. And now that 25-year-old Pat Sims (knee) is scheduled to make his 2011 practice debut, next week, Tuesday's release of starting tackle Tank Johnson at the grizzled age of 29 makes sense in the ordered world of head coach Marvin Lewis.
You have to practice if you're going to play. Johnson, coming off a knee injury that cost him the last nine games of last season, was cleared to work this camp. But he practiced about half the days and apparently didn't play last Friday night because of it. Lewis won't divulge such topics, but he knows he's got the kind of kids he likes at that spot fighting to get on the field. Between them, Atkins and McDonald have fewer career syllables than The Ocho before breakfast this morning.
"They're young guys. They made a lot of progress at the end of last season," Lewis said.
Some questioned the release, arguing Johnson is the team's one true three technique run-stopping tackle to be teamed with nose man Domata Peko in the middle of the 4-3. But Hayes disagrees and notes that Sims had a solid year going before knee problems of his own forced him out last year.
Plus, "Geno is a three technique. He's solid and he's getting better every day," Hayes said.
Lewis indicated it's a misnomer that Atkins is going to automatically become a three-down player with the hopes he can retain his all-out motor and quickness on third down.
"I think he could be a (true) three, but we prefer not," Lewis said. "You want a wave of defensive linemen."
Which is why he says the Bengals are going to be scouring the waiver wire for tackles they like that they expect to get cut, heightening the competition at a spot where the Bengals usually keep four tackles and where seven-year veteran Jonathan Fanene can play both tackle and end and 345-pound Jason Shirley is making a noticeable last stand.
"Every now and then with injuries he's done it," Hayes said of Fanene playing tackle in the base. "He's strong enough, he's knowledgeable enough and there's enough finesse to him to do it easily. Who knows? That just might be the mix."
Whatever happens, the Bengals are moving to a more interchangeable match. Peko, who used to play a bit of the three technique a few years ago, is going to be getting more looks there now. As they say, it's a work in progress and the Bengals are looking hard at the next three games starting with this one in which Sims won't play and probably not Fanene.
So you'll see plenty of the 6-1, 290-pound Atkins, as well as the 6-2, 297-pound McDonald, a guy Hayes thinks might be able to back up Peko at the nose as well as Atkins at the three.
But as Hayes likes to remind, McDonald has played about 60 snaps in two years, the equivalent of one game. In the perfect world, Hayes will have three to four tackles rotating downs and situations.
"It's not necessarily that (Atkins) needs to play all (downs)," Hayes said. "But there will be a series of 'OK Geno, we need you on all three, and we need you to rush like you rush when you're coming off the sideline … all jacked up going in on third down.' "
Atkins knows what he needs to work on to go along with that nickel pass rush that teamed with rookie left end Carlos Dunlap and second-year right end Michael Johnson to generate a combined 14 sacks in the last eight games.
"I think basically I'm a little stouter playing the run," Atkins said. "Hand placement, point of attack against offensive lineman, stuff like that."
Hayes and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer have always been fans of Atkins' no-nonsense approach and it's a major reason the coaches pushed to take him in the fourth round last year. Hayes is seeing the benefits now.
"He's in tune with the technique. His pad level has been pretty good so far," Hayes said. "His run technique has improved. He's not false-stepping and stepping with the wrong foot at times. There would be times you'd say, 'How did you do that?'
"He knows if he doesn't play with the good pad level, he's going to get knocked off the ball, and he knows when he gets knocked off the ball, I'm going to say, 'What are you doing?' "
McDonald, a seventh-rounder out of Memphis in 2009, has always graded high on intangibles. This is a guy that as a rookie on the practice squad would greet the buses back at Paul Brown Stadium no matter what time they returned and they had three West Coast games and a night game that year.
"I kind of felt like I was part of the team even if I didn't travel and (wasn't) at the games," McDonald said. "I felt I put in as much work with the D-line that week that I meet my soldiers when they came back. It was kind of like an encouragement thing. OK, 'Go get them next time or 'Congratulations on a good job well done.' I think guys appreciated it. Some of the guys made fun of it and laughed at it. But at the same time, that's just who I am."
And the Bengals like McDonald just the way he is, a spiritual guy always giving praise to God before he talks about what he's done. And there was a lot to talk about Friday after the Bengals Preseason TV Network named him Player of the Game.
"I used to play kind of scared," McDonald said. "I think I'm playing with more confidence this year … I'm not just out there playing strong. I'm more (aware) of what's going on."
That's the one constant, even when he played what amounted to inside in a 3-4 for Memphis in a league not known for producing NFL payers. McDonald always has been strong. Working up front in the blistering heat of Central Kentucky is nothing. When he was nine and 10 years old in Jacksonville, Ark., and working construction with his father, it was nothing for him to take a 60-pound basket of shingles and carry it up the ladder to the roof.
Larry McDonald, ex-military, is still working for Lockheed Martin building C 130 planes at the Little Rock Air Force Base. There's a lot of father in the son.
"My parents taught me the value of hard work," McDonald said.
Which is why it's easy for Hayes to like these guys even though his most senior player with eight seasons in the game, left end Robert Geathers, just turned 28 last week. Geathers likes them, too, and likes the bonding they went through in the second half of last season. Geathers is another guy that doesn't say much, he just plays wherever he's asked, and last year that meant sliding inside in nickel at times with Atkins.
"They've made a lot of progress. I'm confident in them. Coaches and management are obviously confident in them, too," Geathers said. "Those young guys stepped up and played well for us late in the year. We've got a good group. I thought we had a good chemistry working there at the end of last season."
Hayes is anxious to see how it's bubbling. With the Jets rushing for 257, 171 and 170 against the Bengals under Ryan, the hour is close.
"As they say," Hayes said on a line where they don't say much, "we're fixing to find out."