We're now halfway through the 2015 season, but it's already clear the Cincinnati Bengals' defense is significantly better than they were in 2014.
With Week 9 ending, Cincinnati's defense ranks 11th in total defense, fourth in points per game allowed (17.8), are tied for third in rushing touchdowns allowed (3), and rank fifth in total sacks (23). They ranked 20th, 12th, 27th, and 32nd in those respective categories in 2014. A big reason for those improvements has been the man wreaking havoc in the middle of opposing offensive lines, and that's none other than defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Now that Geno is back to being Geno, the Bengals' defense is back to being a unit opposing teams fear. Thanks to a torn ACL in 2013, Atkins was never himself in 2014 as he worked his way back from the injury. Now that he's healthy and fully recovered, we're seeing the same Geno that was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2012 when he finished as Pro Football Focus' third-best NFL player, regardless of position.
Through eight games this season, Atkins is PFF's 10th-ranked interior defensive lineman and sixth-best pass-rushing interior lineman. He's up to six sacks this season, good for the eighth-most by any player and is on pace to finish with 12; his career high being 12.5 set in 2012.
Atkins is once again dominating the point of attack, pushing his way into the backfield more often than not and stuffing the run.
Atkins has also shown great endurance and has simply worn his man down throughout games before coming on in the fourth quarter. Atkins managed to sack a pair of mobile and elusive quarterbacks in Johnny Manziel and Ben Roethlisberger in back-to-back weeks, both coming in the fourth quarter as he had enough left in the tank to break through for big sacks.
You rarely see a 300-pound interior defensive line rush the passer as well as Atkins has been, let alone do it in four consecutive quarters and be just as effective in the final quarter as Atkins has been. 300-pound men, even ones in the NFL, simply aren't meant to have that kind of endurance, but that's one of many things that makes Atkins special.
Atkins is once again getting frequent double-teams and leaving other defenders in better position to make plays. The biggest benefactor of that has been defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who's now up to 8.5 sacks through eight games, the second-most of any NFL player. Even Domata Peko has two sacks this year after never finishing with more than three in an entire season.
At the rate Atkins is going, he should find himself in this year's Pro Bowl by way of the initial ballot after making it there by way of an alternate selection last year. Atkins may also garnering some All-Pro consideration after being a Second-Team All-Pro Selection by the Associated Press in the 2011 season and a First-Team selection in 2012.