Cincinnati Bengals: Who Needs to Step Up in Geno Atkins' Absence?

Sean ODonnellContributor IIINovember 12, 2013

Oct 6, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Geno Atkins (97) sacks New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) in the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati Bengals All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins suffered a torn ACL in a Week 9 tilt against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday Night Football. Atkins was officially placed on season-ending injured reserve by the team the following Monday, according to Pro Football Talk.

At the time of his injury, Atkins was leading the Bengals in sacks with six and served as the team's best defender against the run. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked Atkins as the league's seventh-best defensive tackle with a positive-20.5 overall grade.

This loss is obviously devastating to a 6-4 Bengals team that hopes to find a third consecutive playoff berth in 2013. The biggest remaining question is: Which Bengals defender must step up in Atkins' absence?

In defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's 4-3 scheme, the next man that will align next to nose tackle Domata Peko is second-year player Brandon Thompson.

Thompson does not have the same tenacity as Atkins in terms of rushing the passer; however, he excels against the run. Thompson is the kind of defensive tackle who commands a double-team—much like Atkins did—to free up edge-rushers Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson.

Pro Football Focus (subscription required) even graded Thompson higher against the run than Atkins during the 2013 season. Thompson ranks 13th with a positive-6.1 grade, and Atkins lands at 17th with a positive-4.4 grade.

Despite a tragic overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 10, Cincinnati's defense thrived against the run. As a team, Baltimore rushed 30 times but was only able to come away with 85 yards on the ground—an average of a mere 2.8 yards per carry. In fact, the Ravens were only able to come away with 189 total yards on the game.

What does this say about the 2013 Bengals defense?

Even though it has suffered a rash of injuries over the season, Zimmer's unit remains one of the deepest in the league. The Bengals are currently ranked fourth in total yards allowed per game, seventh in pass yards allowed per game, ninth in rush yards allowed per game and sixth in points allowed per game.

If you are keeping track, that's a top-10 ranking in all four major defensive categories.

The Bengals defense has been on a tear in 2013. Despite the loss of Atkins, it continued to dominate in Week 10. Looking ahead, the Bengals' remaining schedule does not seem so daunting:

Bengals' Remaining 2013 Opponents' Offensive Ranks
WeekOpponentRecordPass OffenseRun Offense

After looking over Cincinnati's remaining opponents, it appears as though this team will still be able to create success without its best defensive player.

One area of the defensive line that could suffer the most after the loss of Atkins is the pass rush. The Bengals have accumulated 30 sacks as a team through 10 games this year—good enough to rank seventh overall.

Not only was Atkins responsible for six of those sacks, but his presence opened up room for other members of the defensive line.

Thompson will be a force in the run game as mentioned before; but, do the Bengals need another pass-rushing presence on the interior of the defensive line?

Absolutely not.

The in-house depth of the Bengals defense was clearly on display in Week 10.

Cincinnati's pass rush flourished against the Ravens despite Thompson taking the lion's share of snaps (55) at defensive tackle. His 6'2", 320-pound frame commands attention from the offensive line, which opens things up for other members of the defense—in the running game as well as the passing game.

Dunlap and linebacker Vincent Rey were able to take advantage of Baltimore's offensive line despite Thompson in the lineup on Sunday and combined for five sacks on quarterback Joe Flacco. Early indications look as though Thompson can be successful against the pass despite his personal lack of a rush.

Surprising as it seems, the void left by Atkins can be filled by one man. Thompson will remain as the starting defensive tackle next to Peko in Atkins' absence. He was able to show that he is more than capable of contributing in all phases of the game.

During his postgame press conference with the Bengals' official website, head coach Marvin Lewis was asked about Thompson's performance on Sunday. Being a man of few words, Lewis simply said, "I thought Brandon did some good things."

That's about as much praise as a player will get from Lewis. Based on the way Thompson was able to handle the Ravens, he will continue to receive chances to impress.