If a survey was taken, asking who the best player on the Cincinnati Bengals' defense is, there would likely be quite a few people who would pick Geno Atkins. Following a relatively quiet college career at Georgia, Atkins made a name for himself in the NFL after winning the starting defensive tackle job for the Bengals in 2011, racking up 29 sacks in his first four seasons with the team. Unfortunately, a torn ACL suffered against the Dolphins in his fourth season caused him to miss half of that year, and he struggle to return to form in 2014 after spending the offseason rehabbing.
Luckily, for fans of Atkins and the Bengals, 2015 holds plenty of promise for the fifth year veteran and three time Pro Bowler. Unlike the 2014 season, Atkins was able to participate in normal offseason activities with the team, potentially setting himself up for a comeback season.
What went wrong in 2014?
After dominating the NFL in 2012 (12.5 sacks in 16 games), and being on track to repeat that feat in 2013 (6.0 sacks in 8.5 games), Atkins' torn ACL required him to go through rehab during organized team activities in 2014. By the time Atkins was getting warmed up, the rest of the league was already well into the season. As a result, he finished the season with 34 tackles and 3.0 sacks. Those are decent numbers for an average starter, but not for a player of his caliber. Without the intimidating presence that simply comes from having a monster of a defensive tackle like Atkins (at his best) on the line, the Bengals' defense finished the season dead last in sacks (20), was in the bottom half of the league in yards per game (359.3), and tied for third-to-last in forced fumbles (15). Were it not for the contributions of the secondary leading the defense to being tied for the third most interceptions in the league (20), opposing offenses would have completely ran over the team.
Granted, losing Michael Johnson (15 sacks from 2012-13) in the 2014 offseason did not help. Teams were regularly able to double-team Atkins, especially without another legitimate threat at DT. Atkins was able to dominate in 2012 in large part due to the lanes opened up by Domata Peko and the rest of the Bengals’ defensive line, which they simply did not do at all in 2014.
What can go right in 2015?
First of all, spending the offseason training, instead of rehabilitating, will go a long way toward Atkins having a breakout season. As mentioned previously, losing the chance to train in the 2014 offseason set him back quite a bit. Furthermore, the return of Michael Johnson should help to take some of the pressure off Atkins, and the return of Pat Sims should provide more pressure on the starting defensive tackles to help take pressure off of him, as well.
If you've been keeping up with Cincy Jungle this summer, you'll know that Marvin Lewis and Paul Guenther agree that Atkins is "moving a lot better than last year." It seems that he, logically, should be moving much better at this point of the offseason, being a season removed from his injury. The thing is, if he's moving well now – he should be in great shape when the season rolls around, right?
Atkins has been praised for his talent, and noted for his incredible work ethic. If Atkins is going to make a return to form in 2015, he's going to have to have to fall back on the mentality and physical dominance that helped him to overcome being drafted in the fourth round, eventually becoming one of the NFL's most dominant defensive linemen.
Everything seems to be falling into place for Atkins to have the comeback year the Bengals and their fans are clamoring for so desperately. Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap will be reunited, punishing NFL defenses who put too much emphasis on slowing down Atkins, and Atkins himself is getting the fair start he never got last season.
Potential to succeed
As driven of an individual as he is, and as many promising signs as we've seen this offseason, you would think that it would be more likely than not that Geno Atkins will return to his old form in 2015. However, the Bengals are a team that typically sticks by their investments, no matter how desperate things begin to look. He is currently under contract with the team through 2018, a contract worth $31 million in guaranteed money. Although he will likely be more driven to succeed by personal convictions, rather than money, for what he is being paid, Atkins should return to his dominance this year.
That said, fans should give Atkins the benefit of the doubt on the time he requires to rehab from his injury. Players such as Wes Welker, Heath Miller, and Marshal Yanda all posted relative down seasons the year after tearing their ACL, only to improve the following seasons. Although Bengals fans will be more familiar with the exceptionally speedy recovery of Carson Palmer in the 2006 offseason, they should understand one average season does not spell doom for Atkins's career.