What you won't read in the following is how much the Bengals will miss Geno Atkins. That phrase is sure to be repeated in every conversation about Cincinnati for the next few weeks. Rather, life moves on no matter how crushing the blow, and we faithful must scramble in our brains for solutions.
The first thought I had was getting Devon Still back in a hurry, out with a hurt elbow. I haven't heard a very firm time line on his situation, but the team was already working out other big men to add to the tackle rotation before the Atkins catastrophe even took place. Still was beginning to show up, making plays and increasing his presence on the game. Like Mike Zimmer told the youngster in his office on Hard Knocks, he can be a very good player in the NFL if he thinks of himself that way.
If Still remains sidelined, however, they still have some decent tackles to plug in, but it certainly won't be the same. Brandon Thompson has also become marginally more noticeable so far in 2013 and suddenly his development has become critical. Same goes for Margus Hunt who is not a tackle by trade—he's throws shot-put by trade—but is simply large enough to put on the interior and tell him to tackle the guy with the ball. That may be discrediting to the guy. He seems sharp and has been less of a hopeless project than I had feared. If he is to be used more at tackle, perhaps the same way Wallace Gilberry is mixed in at the position, he will have to likely sharpen his technique and footwork as it would surely have different finer points than playing defensive end. He may not be a run-stuffer, but his pass-rush skills, and general strength and endurance, could play enough of a part to make a difference on Sundays.
Domata Peko does his job well, but has become a bit of a run specialist. He is rotated out regularly on seemingly most passing downs. That, though, may be thanks to the talented crop of defensive linemen the Bengals began the season with, rather than an inability of Peko staying on the field more often. It isn't like he is a lousy pass-rusher either. His disciplined about not going for fakes and is simply another strong S.O.B..
The last likelihood, already on the team, is seeing more of Gilberry on the inside. His ability to shift over from end on passing downs has been very positive for the team and has added to the multiple fresh bodies that Zimmer can mix in. Gilberry has been a major value in Cincinnati and seems to fit perfectly within the Zim Clan as a complimentary addition.
I would think the team will sign a free-agent as a contingency plan; an organizational plus that they have effectively demonstrated in the past many times. The minds that make the personnel decisions for the Bengals have been terrific in the past four years at identifying quality contributors for their specific schemes. I feel optimistic about their selections to provide more depth.
Of course, there will be a drop off—it's Geno friggin Atkins—but it is not doomsday the way some want to make the situation. The comparisons to New England's defense and their missing stars is not quite a fair one. The Bengals have a notable depth advantage over most NFL teams and you hear the talking heads of the sport say it all the time. The injuries are piling up precariously on the defensive side of the ball, but they began the season—and probably still remain—the team's strong suit. Mike Zimmer gets his men to play hard and smart no matter who they are (for the most part). They are fiercely loyal to him and are terrified to let him down. Getting Still back is important for the playoffs, but losing their best player does not turn this defense into garbage over night. If anything, the shoulder chip just got bigger.