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The Impact of Geno Atkins’ Return to Form

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Jan 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (97) against the Indianapolis Colts during the 2014 AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this offseason, Cincinnati‘s head coach Marvin Lewis spoke about expecting defensive tackle Geno Atkins to return to his pre-ACL surgery form.

"“Geno played his tail off against the run last year. He didn’t have the production we’d like rushing the passer but I wasn’t dissatisfied with Geno’s season at all. He’ll go back to being as dominant as he was. He’s just got to work through.”"

Lewis’ confidence in Atkins heading into 2015 is a welcomed insight into the coming season for fans.  Having Atkins return to his All-Pro form would change the Bengals’ prospects for 2015 greatly and could prove to be the difference between making the kind of strides the team hopes to in the coming season and not reaching those goals.

Envisioning the Bengals defense with Geno Atkins playing at a 2012 level is nothing short of thrilling.  A defensive performance similar to that of 2012’s isn’t entirely out of the question.  2012 was the last year Atkins earned All-Pro honors.  He accumulated 53 tackles, 12.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles.  This type of dominance has done several things for the defense beyond Atkins’ stats.

Atkins play allowed for the rest of the defensive line to be more effective.  They enjoyed 1:1 matchups and were more productive for it.  Michael Johnson‘s 2012 is the perfect example of this.  It was the same year when he accumulated 11.5 sacks, which is in stark difference to his subsequent seasons.  Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry accounted for six and 6.5 sacks respectively that same year.

More than this, the defense’s effectiveness against the run is also starkly different when Atkins is on the field. In 2012, the Bengals allowed only 4.1 yards/rush, which was good for 11th in the league.  And in 2013, prior to Atkins’ injury when he was on the field, the Bengals allowed only 3.7 yards/rush.  This is likely due to the Bengals’ defensive line dominance, which starts with Atkins.  It allows for linebackers to remain free from blockers and make plays against the run.

It’s likely no coincidence that this is the same year that Vontaze Burfict emerged as a burgeoning star (his rookie season).  Burfict operates best when allowed to roam and use his instincts to make plays.  He only stands to benefit when free from blockers, and Geno Atkins demands attention from at least two blockers when playing at his All-Pro level.

The way I see it, if Geno Atkins can regain the power and disruptive ability that he displayed three seasons ago, the Bengals’ defense stands a good chance of reclaiming the dominance that defined its 2012 campaign; the same year the defense finished sixth in the league based on yards allowed.  As Bill Belichick said prior to the Bengals-Patriots matchup in 2013, “He (Atkins) can ruin a game by himself.”  Geno Atkins regaining this type of dominance could catalyze this team towards yet another playoff run and beyond.

Next: Can Rey Maualuga Justify His Significant 2015 Cap Hit?

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