What hurt the Cincinnati Bengals was more than simply losing to the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night, 22-20. It was more than just how the game ended—a safety on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton by Miami defensive end Cameron Wake in overtime. It was more than just the end of Cincinnati's four-game winning streak.
It was the right knee injury suffered in the first half by Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins. First called questionable to return, Atkins was later seen on crutches, and his status was downgraded to out. According to the NFL Network's Michael Silver, early indications are that Atkins has a torn ACL, while Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis confirmed it was an ACL injury but did not say it was a tear.
Though the extent of the injury won't be known until an MRI and other tests are performed, if Atkins indeed misses the rest of the season, it's a major blow to the Bengals' top-10 defense. However, it's one the team is well-equipped to absorb.
Long thought of as one of the most deep and complete teams in the NFL, this depth will come in handy for as long as Atkins is sidelined. He'll be replaced by Brandon Thompson, along with Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt in pass-rushing situations. Thompson could eventually give way to Devon Still once Still comes back from his elbow injury.
Against the Dolphins, Gilberry and Thompson combined for four tackles and one sack, while Hunt played some snaps but didn't get his hands on anyone. The Dolphins did a good job of protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill from the Bengals pass rush by running the ball heavily—30 times compared to 28 pass attempts.
The result was only three sacks by the Bengals defense, but that shouldn't be seen as a sign that they won't be able to rush the passer without Atkins.
Atkins was Cincinnati's sack leader heading into this game with six, including one on Tannehill prior to his knee injury. But he's not the only Bengals defender able to get to the quarterback.
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap has four sacks on the season, as does Gilberry. Defensive tackle Domata Peko has 2.5 sacks, and defensive end Michael Johnson has 2.5. This is a defense designed to rush the passer, and it will still do so without Atkins.
Even the Bengals run defense should be able to handle the loss of Atkins. With a positive grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) of 5.5, Atkins was one of the Bengals' better run-stoppers. However, Dunlap has a grade of 11.2, and Johnson of 12.4. Thompson, Atkins' primary replacement, has a positive run-stopping grade of 4.5.
Even if the defense takes a step back without Atkins, the Bengals offense can make up the difference. Dalton and the passing game weren't very good against Miami on Thursday, with Dalton throwing three interceptions (including a pick-six), fumbling the ball away once and throwing no touchdowns, though he again had over 300 yards passing.
This can be owed to a Dolphins defense that has had Dalton's number. They basically followed the same game plan as their win over the Bengals last season, as detailed here.
How much will Atkins' injury hurt the Bengals?
Every quarterback has a defense he simply cannot shake, and for Dalton, it is Miami's. Interestingly, Miami's defensive coordinator is Kevin Coyle, who was a longtime cornerbacks and defensive backs coach for the Bengals, with his final year being Dalton's rookie 2011 season.
The Bengals have spent years building and developing a great deal of defensive depth for situations like the one they are in now, with Atkins likely on the shelf until 2014. There's cause for some concern, yes, but it's not an emergency in Cincinnati.
If the Bengals need to rely on one defensive tackle to get them to the playoffs and Super Bowl, then they have more problems than just Atkins' knee. And if they did, they wouldn't be 6-3 and comfortably in first in the AFC North.