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.
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.