Not many in the NFL world thought much when the Cincinnati Bengals selected an undersized defensive tackle out of Georgia back in the 2009 draft, and no one thought Geno Atkins would go on to be the NFL's most irreplaceable defensive player in a few short years.
Atkins has been just that and more for the Bengals for a couple years running.
Credit Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis for his affection for Georgia products and his belief in the 6'1", 300-pound tackle with a relentless motor, but also credit one of the NFL's greatest defensive minds in coordinator Mike Zimmer for getting the most out of Atkins and basing the defense around his abilities.
Cincinnati is known for consistently having an elite defense in recent years. To be more specific, Atkins has propelled the unit to new heights since his rookie year in 2010.
Without Atkins, Cincinnati would struggle in more ways than one. Let's take a moment to break down why Atkins is the NFL's most irreplaceable defensive player.
In Cincinnati, Zimmer utilizes a 4-3 scheme, which does not generate much pressure on quarterbacks except from members of the defensive line. At times, additional defensive backs will be brought for added pressure, but the main form comes from the talented, versatile defensive line.
There is no more important position on that line than at the defensive tackle position next to nose tackle Domata Peko. Thanks to his pass-rushing prowess, Atkins can create unusual pressure from the interior, which flushes the quarterback into the arms of defensive ends or blitzing defensive backs.
Before Atkins back in 2009, Peko and Tank Johnson manned the interior of the line, and the unit as a whole notched only 34 sacks. Last year the unit, aided by Atkins' 12.5 sacks, notched a total of 51.
The numbers speak for themselves, but let’s take a look at how Atkins changes the game in all aspects and allows Cincinnati to field an elite defense each year.
Against the Run
Atkins may be the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL right now, but he’s no slouch against the run. We’ll get to his effectiveness against the pass in a second, but let’s focus on an underrated aspect that makes him the most complete defensive lineman in the NFL.
The following play took place in Week 7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cincinnati couldn’t come up with the win at home, but the game more than displayed Atkins’ elite skill set.
Cincinnati lines up with a four-man front to counter the singleback look from Pittsburgh. Per the usual, Atkins is lined up on the interior of the line. As soon as the ball is snapped, Atkins reads the play and shoots into the gap.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethisberger hasn’t even finished handing the ball off, but Atkins has disrupted the intended execution of the play by using his strength to drive his assignment back into the hole.
The running back attempts to sift through the mess Atkins has caused. Instead, Atkins sheds his man completely and wraps up the back until others can help him put an end to the play for no gain.
As a Pass-Rusher
As mentioned, what most folks know Atkins for is his ability as a pass-rusher. 12.5 sacks as a defensive tackle can do that for you.
In the play below, Atkins absolutely bullies his way to a sack of Roethlisberger, who is notoriously difficult to bring down in the first place. Plays like this make you wonder if Atkins simply decides when and where he’ll get sacks.
Like the running play above, Atkins lines up on the interior in his usual spot. Atkins realizes the play out of the singleback look is a pass, and chaos ensues.
Atkins uses his smaller frame to drive up under the offensive lineman and uses his power to almost take the bigger man off his feet.
Atkins then uses his leverage and superior strength to literally toss the bigger man aside with what appears to be relative ease. As you can see, the rare interior pressure Atkins can generate leaves Roethlisberger with one of three options—take the sack, run up and take the sack from a defensive end or run down into the arms of another defensive end.
Of course, the end result is the offensive lineman watching from his hind parts, and his quarterback is left with nowhere to go as Atkins brings him down.
As you can see, Atkins is imperative to what the Bengals do defensively and has developed into the most important defender in the NFL overall. His presence means more defenders in coverage and less time for defensive backs to get exposed. His skills mean fellow defensive linemen see more opportunities to flourish as well with the attention offenses have to give Atkins.
There are a plethora of important defensive players in the NFL. Some reside at linebacker, others in the defensive secondary. Plenty reside on defensive lines.
None is more important than Atkins.
Is Geno Atkins the best defensive player in the NFL?
Atkins is currently the best at what he does. ProFootballFocus ranked him as the best interior lineman in all of football last season (subscription required). He was a contender for the Defensive Player of the Year award. The form of disruption he creates is rare and enables the defense behind him to have an easier job.
For Cincinnati, letting Atkins get away would be the worst mistake in franchise history (that's saying something if you've followed the Bengals over the years). Atkins is set to hit free agency after the 2013 season and could land the biggest defensive contract in NFL history if Cincinnati allows him to hit the open market.
Atkins is the most irreplaceable defensive player just three seasons into his career. After having his best career to date, Atkins could be headed to much more than a Pro Bowl if he keeps this level of play up.
Stay tuned, because the story of Atkins is only beginning.
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