Amid the mounting disappointment of earning the fourth overall pick and dealing with some serious marital strife involving their franchise quarterback, there is good news to be found. The 2010 draft class, for one, came in and contributed immediately.
Sure, Jermaine Gresham’s inconsistency wasn’t what they wanted, but shifty Jordan Shipley was hard to cover in the slot, and Carlos Dunlap added more pass rush from the end than anything they’ve had since Antwan Odom was left one-on-one with Daryn Colledge in Week 2 of 2009.
Odd as it may be, they were outshined by a guy who became the star of a sub package, defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Nice to be needed
Having just turned 22 years of age, Atkins was one of the younger players selected when the Bengals made him the 120th pick in the 2010 draft. The former Georgia Bulldog had a striking college resume that included plenty of days spent in the opposing backfield, racking-up tackles for losses. Still, he was never really regarded as more than a mid-round prospect, and as such, it was no surprise when he came off the board in round four to Cincinnati.
He couldn’t have landed in a better spot.
After a 2009 season where their flaws were masked, you’d be forgiven for being confident in the Bengals defensive tackles. The truth is they didn’t play all that well. The odd highlight play failed to offset losing more battles than they won in the run game, or their near total inability to create pressure up the middle. There was clearly room for an upgrade to this unit – and upgrade it did.
Some praise should be reserved for Pat Sims who stepped up in the base defense when Tank Johnson went down. But the real star of this particular improvement was Atkins.
Bengals fans won’t be shocked to hear Geno Atkins’ performance described as impressive. It may, however, come as a surprise just how impressively it breaks down.
Remarkable in comparison
The first eight weeks of the season were nothing spectacular on the face of things. 11 quarterback disruptions is a decent return from a rookie, but in the same period, fellow rookies like Ndamukong Suh (21), Gerald McCoy (15), and Tyson Alualu (14) had more. The difference between these first round picks and Atkins was that the Bengal had done his damage on just 119 pass rushes.
Come the second half of the season, more praise came Atkins’ way as he turned more pressures into sacks, four in the final nine weeks of the season. That alone got him onto the radar of many fans, but it was his consistency as part of the nickel defense that made him a fearsome player. By the end of the year, he had totaled 31 quarterback disruptions, only 12 defensive tackles had more. Most noteworthy is that Atkins accumulated his on fewer snaps than all of the guys above him. Furthermore, Atkins converted 10.69% of his pass rushing attempts into disruptions, good enough for 4th best among all NFL defensive tackles. More than Kevin Williams (6.63%). More than Haloti Ngata (5.5%). And more than our top rated defensive tackle, Kyle Williams (9.77%).
Point being, Geno Atkins knows how to rush the passer.
Know your role
Now, it should be noted that, as opposed to how many of the top tackles in the league are used, he mainly saw action in situations that allowed him to get up field without concern for run-stopping duties. Atkins, acting almost purely as a situational player, spent 82% of his snaps getting after the quarterback. That makes life easier and surely was a factor in his success.
The Bengals did give him the opportunity, on occasion, to take part as an every-down defender and he responded by regularly being blown out of holes, so there is room for improvement. In a flash of his potential, he did get the better of Carl Nicks (an All Pro guard in our opinion), and that lets us know the special ability to make a big impact is there.
The next step for Atkins is getting on the field for more than the 355 snaps he managed as a rookie. To do so, he’ll need prove himself trustworthy against the run. While he may never be the stoutest run defender in the league, his college career suggests he’s capable of performing well in that area. But, even without huge development there, his is a formula that has worked for a guy like Jonathan Babineaux, so why not Atkins?
Maybe then, as his snap count increases, we’ll see enough of Geno to really appreciate how good he can be.