Geno Atkins came off PUP Wednesday but the Bengals are going to take his return slowly.
The only thing more notorious than Geno Atkins' first step is his last word because there are so few of them that come before it.
The guy who defensive line coach Jay Hayes calls "a man of few words," was the talk of Bengals training camp Wednesday when he passed his physical and came off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
He's not all the way back yet because the Bengals know he's going to be in the starting lineup Sept. 7 in Baltimore, so they're going to bring him along gradually off his ACL surgery as he starts Wednesday's practice in the limited category.
But just to have the two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle back in the huddle even in Wednesday's walk through gave everyone a lift. Particularly his linemates. Especially the man that plays next to him.
"Geno is one of the best defensive tackles in the game. It's going to uplift everybody. We're excited to have him back, back in the groove and we can't wait to get him back out there working with us," said Domata Peko before Wednesday's practice. ""I'm sure the entire city is glad he's back."
As usual, it's tough to know how the man himself feels. Since he suffered the injury Halloween night in Miami, Atkins has been less talkative than usual. He ducked out of the locker room Wednesday morning with what was thought to be a no comment. But his coach and mates more than made up for it in paragraphs.
Even a guy on the other side of the ball, left guard Clint Boling, took note of Atkins' return. Boling, coming off his own ACL surgery, says his game has benefitted from going up against a guy he calls the best defensive tackle he's played in the NFL.
So he joked, ""I'm probably the only in the building disappointed he's back."
"I know what they tell me," Hayes said. "Does he tell me? He says, 'When I'm ready I'll be out there.' That's all he ever really says. He doesn't say a lot. A man of few words. But what he says, he means.
"From the things I've heard and what he said…And I've seen him lift and do stuff. He'll be all right. He looks good. I saw him squatting one day. He looks like Gene."
And that means the Bengals again have the best inside pass rusher in the NFL. In his first 57 games, Atkins averages .51 sacks per game compared to the .49 Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp averaged in his 198-game career.
"Not only is he a hell of a pass rusher, one of the best inside pass rushers in the game, but he's a hell of a run stopper, too. Especially in that zone scheme," Peko said. "He can blow an offensive guard back and destroy plays… Teams are always going to have to respect him because he can change the whole game. "A lot of teams game plan just for 97."
Start with his start, that ex0plosive first step. Then go to his monstrous weight-room strength, the leader of all the Bengals' veterans.
"When you have a guy like him out there, the rules change. People will adjust their protections to find where 97 is. We see that. We deal with it," Hayes said. "We are always trying to get him in situations where he can get one on one with somebody. Sometimes on a double team they have trouble with him. If you can get him in one on one situations, people are going to have a long day. Whoever that guy is, he's going to have a bad day. I'm sure he'll get back to that soon and just be himself."
That's the question. The Bengals have to find out if the surgery has sucked out any of that explosion. But they won't rush him. The injury happened like most in trench warfare. No rhyme or reason. Stuff happens when the bodies of large men are flying and spinning on the ground.
"We're going to be smart how we use him and how we expose him to everything that's happening," Hayes said. "Make sure as he goes through the days that he practices we're not going to over expose him or needlessly put him in danger.
"The biggest thing will be a feel. How he feels. Just staying on his feet with people standing around him. He just has to get his se legs under him," said Hayes, who played defensive end in the old USFL. "When I played I got hurt at the beginning of the year once. I came back and played. It's just comfort level. You feel like you can protect yourself and just feel strong again. This is on that road to that. It's a matter of him getting out there and putting his body in different positions and seeing how that holds up, and then go to the next thing and the next thing."
Even on his big return day Atkins didn't have much to say to the guys, although Hayes said he thought he caught, "a little gleam in his eye." He couldn't tell if his mates or Atkins was more excited. When they put him in the walk through, Hayes could sense an "Oooh, here goes Gene,' from the gathering.
"It was good. He was in for a few plays and we switched the group and I said, 'You stay out there.' Everyone just kind of chuckled," Hayes said.
Atkins doesn't even say much to his teammates, never mind the media. But Peko is pretty sure the more Atkins gets confident in his knee, he'll back to his old two-word self.
"I ask him how he's doing and he says, 'Good.' 'So how's your weekend? 'Awesome,'" Peko said. "But me and the guys talk about him and say that once he gets back in the swing of things and gets back on the practice field, he'll start opening up a little bit more."
Talk about going under the radar. The Bengals also activated sixth-rounder Marquis Flowers, a linebacker out of Arizona. Flowers had been nursing a hamstring issue since late in spring drills. He didn't mind giving the stage to Atkins.
I'm just glad I can start playing again," Flowers said.