On Halloween night, I threw up my hands in the air as I watched, whom I considered to be the Bengals' most valuable defensive player, Geno Atkins lying on the ground with an ominous knee injury. Two months later, the defense is still rolling strong without him, Hall, or Newman. What gives? Is Geno Atkins possibly overrated? I don't know. I mean, seriously, I don't know....
This is more of a proposed debate rather than a pitched argument, as I haven't really performed enough conclusive analysis to determine an opinion on the matter. However, some basic statistics and results have led me to suspect that Atkins is more a product of the system than necessarily being an ultra-elite interior defensive lineman.
Sack Totals: Wallace Gilberry, who has played less than 50% of the snaps this year, still has 7.5 sacks (4.5 of which were up the middle as an interior lineman). Compared to Geno's 12.5 sacks in 2012 as a full-time starter (the majority of his snaps being aligned for passing situations), Gilberry is not relatively far off his mark as a quasi replacement.
On the flip side however, the overall number of team sacks decreased from 51 to 43 since last season. Meanwhile the QB hits increased from 89 to 101, respectively. The argument that Geno Atkins commanded double teams and thus allowed the rest of the d-line better opportunities could certainly be argued (particularly in the case of MJ with a dismal 3.5 sacks compared to his franchise tag inducing 11.5 sack performance last season).
Overall Defense: Despite the losses of their only coverage LB, Lamur, in the preseason, best cornerback, Hall, in week 7, and then Newman later on, the overall ranking of the defense improved from 7 to 5 since last season. Perhaps this can be attributed to players better understanding and executing in the system (in particular, Iloka & Maualuga) or the addition of others (notably Harrison & Hunt - though they mostly have been insignificant). However, it is hard to fathom how a defense can improve after it loses arguably the best interior defensive lineman in the game.
Declining Value of Interior Linemen: Clearly as the NFL has evolved into a passing league, defensive tackles have become less important as quality pass-rushing defense ends are increasingly coveted. Even if Geno Atkins is the best (when healthy) interior d-lineman, it's possible his value at that position is still overemphasized and in effect he may be overrated. Not that we should immediately cut him and his remaining contract, but in three years should we allow him to leave when he potentially demands a franchise-level salary at the expense of a quality DE (i.e. MJ)?
Subjective Analysis: I don't think anyone, including myself, would claim he was gift-wrapped 12.5 sacks in one season as the "product of a system". However, how much better is he than Still, Thompson, or Gilberry - and is that drop off in performance enough to significantly impact the overall defense? Keep in mind, the run-support tandem of Thompson & Peko had a combined 4.5 sacks, in addition to those of Gilberry, in the absence of Atkins (and they would conceivably have had more if Atkins was out the entire year).
The best article I could find on Atkins was at Pre Snap Reads, which evaluated his techniques and performance. The writer is, needless to say, overly positive in his analysis of Atkins, though did make one subtle dig.
Atkins went six games last season without a sack. During those games he faced off against some of the better offensive lines and/or quarterbacks in the league. The Cleveland Browns kept their quarterback clean twice, while the Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans in the playoffs did once. In those games he had 15 total hurries and not once did hit the quarterback.
It's possible that Atkins was contained by better offensive linemen. Even though he had two sacks on opening night against the Baltimore Ravens, those sacks came against backup offensive lineman Bobbie Williams, not all-pro starter Marshal Yanda.