CINCINNATI — In the dimly lit defensive meeting room of the Cincinnati Bengals, tackle Geno Atkins isn’t in the mood for small talk. A few days prior, his team lost 17-6 to the Cleveland Browns to drop to 2-2 in a season with much-hyped Super Bowl expectations.
The 4-0 New England Patriots were coming to town in two days with all-world quarterback Tom Brady at the helm. But if Atkins is worried about a potential home loss sending the season into a downward spiral, he isn’t showing it. Atkins is in business mode and immersed in his meticulous film study. He’s watching red-zone cutups of the Patriots.
Play. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Play.
Atkins’ eyes dart from Brady to the linebacker to the defensive tackles. “You give Tom Brady this much space and time, he’s going to start picking the secondary apart,” Atkins says quietly. Another play comes up. Brady doesn’t have room to make the throw he wants.
“See how he’s stepping up into the pocket rather than running around?” Atkins explains. “We have to help out the ends by pushing the pocket to get five yards into the backfield. If I can get into the guard and center, he has no room to step up and make that touchdown throw. We have to make sure he can’t step into his throws. … If we can push the pocket to where he can’t step into his throws, or he has to alter his throws, I like our chances.”
Fast forward to 1:04 p.m. that Sunday and the second play of the game. Atkins rocks slightly in his three-point stance. Powerful Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins is on Atkins’ left shoulder; 6-8, 320-pound left tackle Nate Solder is on the right. Brady takes the snap, turns his back and fakes a handoff to the running back.
He has no idea that Atkins is about to start one of the longest days in Brady’s recent history.
THE QUIET BEAST
Atkins, 25, was First Team All-Pro last season. In training camp he signed the most lucrative contract extension for a defensive tackle in league history: five years, $55 million. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said that if the 2010 NFL draft was held again, Atkins—who went in the fourth round out of Georgia that year—would “probably be the first pick.” If so, that means Atkins is held in higher esteem than Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh, who is also a three-technique (pass-rushing standout who plays on the outside shoulder of the guard) and went second overall in ’10. Asked whom he would compare Atkins to, Belichick said, “Like a John Randle type, but I’d say more powerful. . . . He can ruin a game, there’s no question.”
Atkins is not supposed to be in these conversations. Coming out of college he was viewed as a sub-package pass rusher with potential to be an every-down player as he improved. Atkins blew up that timeline like he does a zone-blocking scheme. He had the nickel pass-rush thing down in rookie minicamp. When defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer saw Atkins in action, he couldn’t contain his excitement about this rookie he called the “Tasmanian Devil.”
“I had to see the film,” said eighth-year nosetackle Domata Peko. “I was like, ‘Holy crap, who the hell is this guy?’ It was from that, I knew that, oh man, we have a hell of a player here.”
So did the offensive linemen. After an offseason practice in 2010, an exasperated lineman drifted over to Zimmer and asked, “Is this 97 going to be sacking the QB like he is in OTAs?” Zimmer shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, I guess we’ll see,” he said. Through his first 48 games (32 of them starts), Atkins had 23 sacks.
He can do more than just get after the quarterback. At 6-1 and 300 pounds, Atkins is built low to the ground to help in leverage. And his strength—increasing every year with work put in at Ignition APG in Cincinnati, where several NFL players train—is already approaching legendary. “When he’s squatting and benching, like, dude, they’re going to run out of weights,” Peko said. “The amount of weight he can push around is just incredible, and the thing about it is, he doesn’t get fatigued. One set, straight into the next set. Other guys take a break. He’s not taking a break. He just keeps going. That’s God-given talent and strength.”
He doesn’t carry himself like a typical meathead, however. Look into his eyes, and the passion is hidden. Watch him move, and it’s always the same measured pace. It’s impossible to get a rise out of him. Atkins just seems to be there. That’s probably why some NFL teams flagged him as a possible attitude problem, with the dreaded “inconsistent motor” label, before the 2010 draft. Atkins might appear to be the ambivalent superstar, but there’s a personality there to those who know him.
“If you’re saying he’s a strong, silent type, I would say with his teammates and his close friends, he’s really funny,” said his long-time girlfriend, Kristen Merritt, over dinner at Tom + Chee in Newport, Ky., across the river from Cincinnati. “He’s extremely funny and makes me laugh all the time.”
The two met six years ago at Georgia but didn’t become a couple until about 2 ½ years ago. It happened on her graduation day, when Atkins wrote Merritt a note professing his adoration and concluded it by asking, “Will you be my girlfriend?”
Wait, wait, wait, wait. Did Geno Atkins, who has been known to toss a few 330-pound offensive linemen into the air and onto their backside, just admit he courted his girlfriend with a hand-written love note? Does he realize the epic chop-busting in store for him in the Bengals’ locker room?
Who is this guy? He hasn’t even made one big purchase from his contract extension. If Atkins was hooked up to a lie detector, it’d probably break from boredom. But remember that Atkins is the son of Gene Atkins, former safety for the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, and has been around pro football his whole life. He doesn’t know anything different. “He gets his even-keelness from his dad, his competitiveness from his mom,” Merritt said.
Atkins is passionate about his teammates, especially the defensive line. He was in the same draft class as left end Carlos Dunlap. Michael Johnson, the right end, was one year earlier. Peko is the old man. Atkins sounds as if he misses the regular Thursday night get-togethers at Dunlap’s house for the defensive line. (It’s not that they won’t have them; they just hadn’t to that point in the season.) It’s all about eating good food, watching film and having conversations about their goals and dreams. The Bengals’ defensive line might as well be back in high school getting ready for the big Friday game. It’s a setting that perfectly explains what Atkins is about.
THE FILM STUDENT
Atkins separates himself from other NFL defensive linemen with his intellect and preparation. He might play with unreal strength, quickness and power, but there’s a subtle genius to his work.
The night after losing to the Browns, he started watching film of the Patriots “to get a feel for what they’re doing.” Then it’s a quick glance at the Bengals’ tablet playbooks to watch film of the Browns game so he can “see what I did, what they’re going to yell at.” Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday all include built-in film work. Atkins doesn’t stop there, however. Every night he’ll watch a good hour of film looking for “little tendencies” that could help him out.
On the Friday afternoon before the Patriots game, Atkins reviewed with The MMQB his performance against the Browns and his study of the Patriots in the red zone. The depth of Atkins’ thought process is powerful.
He explains his thinking on a two-way go, a play in which he can rush in either gap: “How the guard is going to set me really dictates where I’m going to go. I felt like I can beat him with my speed even though [Browns guard Oniel Cousins] short-stepped me. I could have definitely taken the inside move and got there a little bit faster, because [Peko’s] doing a great job occupying the center and guard. That leaves me on an island one on one. I did a good job with the hands. Beat him with speed. You just have to know what kind of guard you’re going up against.”
On the next play Atkins walks left guard John Greco back four yards, like he’s on skates. “You’re looking for little keys,” Atkins said. “I thought he was leaning a little bit, so if I can knock him off and change the level of the line of scrimmage, then boom, I can be a factor in the play. He was oversetting me after he realized how fast I was. He felt like if he could take that away, he’d be in better shape.”
Atkins talked about taking on double teams against the pass. “Basically I focus more of my attention on the center than the guard,” he said, while the film shows Atkins making a powerful beeline for the center, which turns the guard away from Bengals end Wallace Gilberry. “I try to get the guard to get kick out here a little bit to free up a little more spacing so Gilberry is going to have the one-on-one.”
A few minutes later there’s a split sack with Dunlap. “[Greco has] been oversetting me all game so basically I know if give him a hard move going up the field he’ll just jump it,” said Atkins, who then jumped inside.
The Browns try an outside zone run to Atkins’ side. That’s ruined when Atkins knocks Cousins back and forces Willis McGahee to cut back for a gain of 1. “Anytime the offensive linemen go flat down the line, you at least want to knock them off so the ball can come back,” Atkins said. “Gives the backside guys time to come through.”
It’s hard work that got Atkins a sack against Greco to start the fourth quarter (above). “You’ll see me lift his hand off of me. Got real and then a free shot.”
Atkins knows when a power run is coming and he’s about to get double-teamed at the point. “You can usually tell with the tight end motioning back in, with the splits between the linemen and usually the tackle is looking at you, and the guard’s in an aggressive stance. If I can hold the point of attack and basically make it bounce outside, that’s what we want to do. That’s what we want to do—bounce outside to our support help. They’re free. Rey [Maualuga, a linebacker] goes over the top, boom, no gain.”
Atkins switches over to the Patriots’ red-zone film. He studies the silent count tap the guard gives the center, and who Brady is calling out when he changes the protection. He really studies how the linemen are setting when pass blocking. “If they make a ‘Rita’ [right] call, he’s going to slide extra hard, so I have to be ready to counter and cross and turn and go to the outside,” Atkins said.
“So basically when this dude motions over right here, I know the slide of the protection is coming over to the other side,” he said. “I know that I’m going to have a one-on-one right here. That’s why [the opponent] ran a game [end-tackle stunt].
“They like to run it to the wing on goal line. Hopefully they’ll do it against us.”
On going against Mankins: “He’s good, strong, physical. I’ve seen him on film basically come off the double team, push the three-tech over to the tackle and then be able to grab the linebacker and slam him on the ground on his back. He’s a strong, good athlete. With him, you have to play sound fundamentally, or it’s going to be a long day.”
There’s a reason for Atkins’ every move. He has studied his opponent. He knows the quarterback’s tendencies. He knows what motion by a tight end might mean. And that knowledge comes together in an instant before the snap.
And then the Tasmanian Devil is unleashed.