If you want to buy the jersey of the Bengals’ best player, you can’t just head down to Dick’s and pick up his jersey off of a rack. At most places, including the team’s own official website, you can buy jerseys of any of the other three Pro Bowlers from last year’s team — Andy Dalton, A.J. Green or Jermaine Gresham — in any of three colors: white, black or orange. But if you want the No. 97 of Geno Atkins, you’ll have to work a little harder.
For most of the Bengals’ history, their stars have been on the offensive side of the ball: Bob Trumby, Isaac Curtis, Ken Anderson, Anthony Munoz, Boomer Esiason, Chad Ochocinco and Carson Palmer. Of the 21 Bengals to be selected to multiple Pro Bowls in the franchise’s history, 15 have been on the offensive side of the ball. The team has just one Hall of Famer in its history, and that was an offensive player in Munoz.
Even its current stars — Dalton and Green — are offensive players. But its best player might just be a third-year defensive tackle out of Georgia that lasted until the fourth round of the 2010 draft. Entering his third season in the NFL, Atkins won’t get the publicity of Green or Dalton, but his value goes beyond his team-leading 7.5 sacks in 2011. ProFootballFocus.com, a kind of sabermetrics-type site for the NFL, recently ranked its top 101 players from 2011, going on just the performances from last season. Atkins finished first among defensive tackles and No. 19 overall. The only other Bengal ranked by the site was offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth at No. 82.
The site wrote:
“The sophomore defensive tackle was as good this year as people thought Ndamukong Suh was last year.
Emerging as an every-down defender, Atkins graded positively in both the run game and with his pass rushing. His +21.3 grade in the pass game was the best of all defensive tackles, aided by 23 quarterback sacks and hits. That shouldn’t take away from his work in the run game, where he finished in the Top 15 with 20 defensive stops. Got the nation’s attention with a dominant display in the Bengals’ playoff defeat to the Texans.”
Atkins got his teammates’ attention early in his career.
“When he first came, I remember the first OTA (offseason training activities), they’d already had a rookie camp and (defensive coordinator Mike) Zimmer called him the Tasmanian Devil because he was all over the field running around,” said fellow defensive lineman Domata Peko. “I noticed it the first OTA, I knew he’d be good.”
He played in all 16 of the Bengals’ games his rookie season, leading the team in quarterback pressures with 19 and finishing second in sacks with three. In 2012 he made the step to being one of the best in the game. He not only had the sacks, but disrupted other teams’ entire offensive gameplans with his quickness. That quickness is what sets him apart — at 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, he’s considered small for an NFL defensive tackle. He said in airports or other situations when people know he’s a pro football player but don’t know who he is, they often mistake him for a linebacker. Peko said the two are always told by fans they meet that they look smaller in person. And Atkins’ height is exactly why he was drafted as late as he was.
“He had numbers as an inside player, but he’s not your prototype — people will say he’s small, but he’s a short, big man, is what he is,” said defensive line coach Jay Hayes. “He’s not tall, but he is a big man. He’s a 300-pound guy. He’s 6-1. When you draw them up, you think of guys that height, you think they’ll have issues. All of us with the measuring sticks and all that stuff want the height, but I couldn’t ask for a better player.”
In fact, he’s used his size as an advantage: “He’s so tough to block because he plays so low,” said guard Clint Boling, who had to try to block Atkins in practice in college for three years before reconvening here in Cincinnati.
His height could mean people overlook him, but that’s happening less and less these days. And it won’t continue if he matches his performance from a year ago. Still, it’s difficult to get him to say much of anything about his own success.
“I come in and don’t say a word and do what I’m told,” Atkins said of his plans for his third season. “I just come in humble, do my job, play within the scheme and don’t try to do anything out of the ordinary and just play.”
That’s been good enough so far.