For week six. the Cincinnati Bengals travel to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots. The Bengals are off to a less than stellar start at 2-3, including losses to the Steelers, Broncos and Cowboys. Despite their record, the Bengals are a very tough team to compete against on both offense and defense. With that being said, we will look at a player on the defensive side of the ball, star defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Atkins is having another solid season with two and a half sacks through the first five games of the season. He has continually been a force in both run and pass defense for the Bengals and is arguably their best player on defense. There is a lot to love about Atkins including his quick first step, his multiple pass rush moves to get by a blocker and his explosiveness. He has had that on display so far this season yet again and as one of the best defensive tackles in the game, the Patriots interior offensive line will be in for a tough match-up.
In a 4-3 defense that the Bengals run, Atkins usually lines up in between the center and right/left guard (or what is better known as the "A" gap). With his quick first step and the speed he has, he is often able to slip right by defenders or use his strength to beat single or double teams. That can easily cause problems in either the run or passing offense for the Patriots. With the Patriots being fans of the "12 personnel" (one running back, two wide receivers, two tight ends) with Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski, we often see New England having five offensive lineman and a tight end (if not two) on the line of scrimmage. In that scenario, the Patriots will likely try to use double teams (the center and whatever guard Atkins is lined up near) on Atkins to try and limit his effectiveness.
Despite multiple losses (releasing Josh Kline, Bryan Stork and Jonathan Cooper / Sebastian Vollmer on the PUP [physically unable to perform] list) on their offensive line, the Patriots have had a rather strong unit so far. They have given up only nine sacks all season, equally just under two sacks per game. And while there has been some shifting at right guard between Shaq Mason and Ted Karras, both center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney have played every snap so far this season. That sort of consistency from both Andrews and Thuney, combined with the return of Dante Scarnecchia, is something that the 2015 team sorely missed. Not to mention both have played terrifically so far as well.
Going back to Atkins, he reasserted himself as a top defensive tackle in both the run defense and pass rush categories. He finished with 11 sacks in less than 800 snaps, eight quarterback hits and an astounding 49 hurries (an average of over three per game). For a defensive tackle, this is incredible production. Behind J.J. Watt, Atkins may be the best defensive lineman in the NFL. And going up against the Patriots interior offensive line, he may actually be in for a tough game if New England game-plans accordingly.
What makes Atkins so difficult to defend against is his rare combo of elite speed and strength. His quick first step when the ball is snapped is usually much quicker than any offensive lineman has time for, allowing him to engage an off-balanced blocker. He has the ability to use his swim move and/or bull rush, giving the element of surprise with either pure strength or smooth technique to get behind his blocker(s). Also, Atkins is able to provide himself with a solid base, which makes it harder for offensive lineman to move him to create running lanes and/or to get him away from the quarterback. As strong as he is in his upper body, his balance and strength in his lower body allows for him to control where he goes.
The Patriots will likely use double teams on Atkins constantly as he is easily the Bengals biggest threat on the defensive line. He usually lines up on the strong side of the offense, meaning he will see time against both Thuney and Mason with the help of Andrews. Because of his presence in the middle of the line of scrimmage, the Patriots will need to utilize more run plays to outside, where LeGarrette Blount's one-cut running style will suit him. They can also use some trickery and run the ball inside on the weak side despite less blockers, which could limit Atkins' effectiveness.
As Atkins is so quick in being able to get behind the line of scrimmage, the Patriots will likely need to continue using quick throws that get the ball out of Tom Brady's hands quickly. With Gronkowski, Bennett and Julian Edelman all strong in their short-to-intermediate receiving game, Brady will have the weapons to get plays done quicker and let his play-makers do most of the work. If there is less time for Atkins to get past his blockers and get to the quarterback, the safer Brady will be while allowing plays to develop after the reception. Since it is already the Patriots forte to use quick pass plays, it wouldn't be that much of an adjustment for the Patriots in their offensive scheming.
Overall, Atkins is a threat that will need to be accounted for on every play. Whether it is the passing game or the run game, he is elite at disrupting both facets of an opposing team's offense. Making sure the Patriots use double teams, use more outside/weak side run plays and quick passes will be the keys to limiting Atkins' influence in the game. It will still be a challenge but don't be surprised if he is the focal point of the team's game-planning on offense.