The New England Patriots’ offensive line has played some talented fronts this year, and the Cincinnati Bengals’ — despite the team entering Week 15 with the worst record in the NFL at 1-12 — certainly deserves to be mentioned among them as well. But while Carlos Dunlap, Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard have all contributed especially in the passing game, one player stands out among them: veteran defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
At 6-foot-1, 300 pounds, Atkins may not be the most physically imposing player on his team but his success speaks for itself: a seven-time Pro Bowler, the 31-year-old leads the team with 45 quarterback pressures this season and ranks third with 4.5 sacks. He has been a disruptive presence from the interior defensive line, and is a player the Patriots will need to be able to contain. Whether or not they can is a different question, though.
“There’s been a few guys like him at that position. They’re very hard to handle in there; their quickness. He has very good playing strength and leverage,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick when talking about interior pass rushers like Atkins during a media conference call earlier this week. “He’s more of a compact guy, but he has great leverage. Good quickness, good motor, and like a lot of those guys, he’s very smart and instinctive.”
“He just can anticipate who’s going to block him or what the combination is going to be up front, and then he anticipates, and uses his quickness, and his power and his length, or I’d say leverage, to gain an advantage. And once he gains an advantage, it’s very hard for those blockers — the guards, the centers, sometimes the tackles on those doubles — just to regain it,” Belichick continued about the former fourth-round draft selection.
Needless to say that the Patriots’ O-line has its work cut out for it, especially because the unit has struggled this season both in run blocking and pass protection. While the return of starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn should have helped settle things down a bit, the line as a whole has not yet reached a level anywhere near where it was entering last year’s playoffs. And with Atkins and company coming up on the schedule, Belichick knows the group must play a disciplined game.
“He’s just too quick and too explosive to... once he has that gap or he has that little bit of a position advantage, then he capitalizes on it and gains it, and a lot of times he gets held,” the future Hall of Famer said. “He causes a lot of penalties there on that, and that’s another way he’s disruptive is some first-and-20’s, and second-and-20’s off penalties on those plays. I’d say it’s a combination of those things, but his initial quickness, his short-space quickness, his awareness, his instinctiveness — can anticipate — and he plays strong.”
“He just doesn’t get walked out of there. He can certainly hold his ground, and if you try to play too soft on him, and just mirror him and try to take away his quickness, then he can use his power,” Belichick continued before shifting his attention to his teammates up front. “He’s got two good outside rushers with him, with Hubbard and Dunlap, that helps. So, there’s a lot of times somebody has to step up, or you’re in trouble with the ends or he forces them back and that puts you in trouble with the edge guys.”
Luckily for the Patriots, there is at least a realistic chance that they get their starting center back this week: after missing last week’s game because of a knee injury, Ted Karras returned to practice on Wednesday in limited fashion. Having him in the middle of the formation instead of James Ferentz — who had his moments against Kansas City but ultimately proved to be a downgrade, as expected — should help against Cincinnati’s talented front.
As Belichick put it when talking about Atkins alongside players such as Dunlap and Hubbard, “it all causes a problem.” If New England’s offense wants to get back on track on Sunday, it needs to find a solution for it and make sure the veteran defender does not wreck the game with his prolific interior pass rush.