Paul Brown Stadium, Week 5 versus the Patriots. New England begins the first series, at its own 13, with a four-yard LeGarrette Blount run that would have gone for more if Atkins hadn’t beaten right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and tripped up the running back from the other side of the line. Second down is a good spot to run play-action, because the defense will be expecting run. There’s a play the Patriots call frequently in such situations to great success—a stretch play to the right, the run action causing the defensive front seven to flow to the ball. Instead, Brady keeps it and, finding no defenders around him, fires a pass down the field.
In this instance, Atkins blows the play up. Brady receives the snap, and the New England offensive line begins moving to its right, setting up the play-action to Blount. Atkins pursues for about two steps, but then charges ferociously up the field and is in Brady’s face as the quarterback pulls the ball back from Blount and turns to look for his receivers. Mankins hadn’t delayed Atkins. Solder, who had never played against Atkins, didn’t expect him to be so quick and failed to even attempt the cut block. Result: sack.
“Got to give this one to Zim: he did a good job of calling up the right play,” Atkins said the following Monday. “We weren’t slanting, it’s a called play to play the pass and react to the run and so that’s what I was doing. It would have been bad if he actually handed off the ball but … I was just playing pass the whole way.”
On the first down of the next series, Atkins is lined up in the same spot for a run right at him. The Patriots figure the country-strong Mankins can turn Atkins. If that happens they’ll have a big play with fullback James Devlin taking out one linebacker, Vollmer the other, and center Ryan Wendell turning Peko. Only Mankins couldn’t move Atkins, who disengages and makes the tackle after two yards with Gilberry and Peko squeezing as well. “I was able to dictate where the run could go,” Atkins said. “Waited for the ball to commit one way.”
He’s isn’t so happy on the 6-yard quick pass to Kenbrell Thompkins. “I knew the slide [protection to his side] was coming,” Atkins said. “I have to fight back but didn’t.”
Third down on the third series, Atkins gets just his left arm underneath the pads of Mankins, stands him up and pushes him into Brady as the resulting wayward pass is nearly picked off. “This is what I was talking about [on Friday], not letting Brady be able to step up into his throws,” Atkins said.
Second play of the fourth series, the Patriots try a power run with Mankins and Solder doubling hard down on Atkins, trying to get him out of the gap. Atkins barely moves: no gain. On the game film, Atkins appears uncharacteristically demonstrative. Angry? “I wasn’t mad, I was happy,” Atkins said. “That gave enough time for everybody to rally and get him. I was really happy about that. Did my job.”
Two plays later, the Patriots have what looks like a simple 4-yard run by Blount. Not so simple to Atkins. “I saw this on film,” he said. “Anytime the fullback or tight end would be a little bit outside the tackle, that it was going to be a wham [block] on me, and so I basically read that easily.” Most linemen, thinking they were unblocked, would charge up field trying to make a play. Atkins, instead, stutter-steps, makes Larsen come to him, and clogs the hole. “They gashed the Falcons a good 15, 20 yards doing that,” Atkins said.
The Patriots are trying to score before halftime when, on first down after the two-minute warning, Atkins runs a game with Margus Hunt and ends up shoving Solder on top of Brady right after Dunlap laid a hit to cause an incomplete pass.
On second down, the Bengals played a receiver screen as if they knew it was coming. Four-yard loss. “We knew on second down and long they like to run screens, so we played for it,” Atkins said, adding that he also reacted to a key Zimmer had passed along about Brady.
In the second half Atkins is too fast for Wendell to reach on an outside zone run: one yard, which sets up a sack on the next play to end the drive. Atkins should have had another sack with 3:34 left in the third quarter when he made Mankins look bad (a rarity), but Dunlap had jumped offsides. “I knew [Mankins] was going to be overaggressive,” Atkins said.
Midway through the fourth quarter the Patriots are threatening, down 13-3 with a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. On first down, Atkins does a subtly startling thing: He knows Vollmer is going to try to cut him, so Atkins actually moves into the block—cutting down the distance Vollmer needs to execute the block—which causes Mankins to bounce off his leg, and Atkins is in on the no-gain tackle.
On second down New England tries a surprise pass to Solder, who is shifted to tight end, but the Bengals have it well covered. “Just from watching film, we knew that they always run to the right and then pass to the left,” he said.
On third down Brady quickly tries to get the Patriots into the play because the Bengals appear confused and are not yet lined up. Atkins, who makes the calls up front for the line, knows the Bengals aren’t right and calls timeout on his own, which might have saved a touchdown. Brady senses it as well and is visibly upset that the Bengals called the timeout. On the ensuing play the Bengals come with a blitz and Margus Hunt, untouched, harries Brady into an incompletion.
Later, on the Patriots’ last-gasp drive with the rain coming down, Atkins walks right guard Dan Connolly right into Brady, rushing an incompletion. On second down, Atkins and Gilberry beat Connolly and Wendell, respectively, to force another quick incompletion. “He saw us,” Atkins said of Brady. “He’s not stepping into his throws, throwing it off his back foot.” With 49 seconds left, Hunt and Gilberry run a game that makes Brady uncomfortable. Two plays later, more pressure up the middle as Brady throws incomplete, but he draws a roughing call against Gilberry. And then, finally, with 26 seconds left, the game ends when Brady loses his grip on the ball, and the underthrown pass is intercepted by Adam Jones.
Final score: Bengals 13, Patriots 6. Final stat line for Brady: 18 of 38 for 197 yards, zero touchdowns (for the first time in 52 games), four sacks and a 52.2 passer rating. Just as Atkins talked about heading into the game, the Bengals were able to get pressure on Brady and prevent him from stepping up into his throws.
“This is the kind of defense that Zimmer was telling us all summer he envisioned us playing,” Atkins said.
THE SUPERSTAR IN THE MAKING
The victory over the Patriots started a four-game winning streak that has pushed the Bengals into control of the AFC North. At the center of it all is a superstar no one predicted, including Atkins himself.
“I’m basically exceeding my wildest expectations,” Atkins said. “I would never have dreamed I would go to the Pro Bowl and be All-Pro. Every year I’m reaching another level. My first year I got three sacks but I wasn’t satisfied. I told myself I have to do better and I did—7.5 sacks and had 45 tackles and two forced fumbles, and I was a Pro Bowl alternate. I was like, ‘I can do more, I want to be All-Pro now.’ So I set my sights to get 12.5 sacks. I told myself I can be an All-Pro. I’m good enough, I can do it, I’m going to work hard. In my head, I said nobody out there is going to outwork me. So that’s what I did.”
What’s next for Atkins?
“This year I want to take this team and go to the Super Bowl,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Don’t doubt his chances.