Bengals' pass rush needs spark from 'five stars' like Geno Atkins

CINCINNATI -- The most silent player in the Bengals locker room has usually been the most ferocious.

Over the bulk of Geno Atkins' 10-year career, the quiet defensive tackle has let his on-field performance do all of the talking. But the conversation has been slightly different this season.

Through the first six games, Atkins has only one sack, his lowest total at this point of the schedule since 2014. For the Bengals’ pass rush to improve from its current status as one of the least effective in the NFL, it starts with Atkins.

"The five stars have to play like five stars," Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. "That’s how that goes. When you have guys that are Pro Bowlers and high-level players they’ve got to play good."

Atkins, who rarely talks to the media and declined to be interviewed for this story, has consistently been in that category. He was the Bengals' lone Pro Bowl selection last season and is tied with wide receiver A.J. Green for the second-most appearances in franchise history (seven).

Earning that accolade will be difficult if the trend continues. According to ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, Atkins has a Pass Rush Win Rate of 10.2 percent. That ranks 53rd among all defensive linemen who have played at least three games this season.

In fact, the 0-6 Bengals don’t have a player who ranks in the top 40 in that category (injured defensive end Carlos Dunlap is 43rd at 12.7 percent). Jacksonville (2-4), this week’s opponent, has three linemen among that group, including rookie Josh Allen, who is eighth.

Since ESPN started tracking the metric in 2017, this is the least effective Atkins has been while rushing the passer. Anarumo said Atkins is doing a good job of holding up double-team blocks at the line of scrimmage. But when it comes to rushing the passer out of those blocks, it’s been a different story.

Atkins has won only 3.6% of his rushes when facing two offensive linemen. Last year, that rate was at 11%.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Wednesday he knows Atkins is still working hard and presenting problems for opposing offenses. However, the Bengals as a whole need to increase the number of sacks. Only the Dolphins and Falcons have fewer (five) than the Bengals' seven.

"I expect the production to still be there from those guys on the interior," Taylor said.

Evaluating Atkins and the rest of the pass rush is one of the reasons the final 10 games of the regular season are important with the the Bengals having a 0.3 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

The lack of a pass rush has been a percolating problem that predates the Bengals’ offseason coaching change. Starting with Week 4 of the 2015 season, the Bengals began a streak of 34 straight games with at least one sack. That still stands as the sixth-longest streak this decade, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

However, since that streak ended on Week 5 of the 2017 season, the Bengals have had eight games without a sack, which is tied for the most in the NFL during that span. And through the first six weeks of this season, Cincinnati is 29th in PRWR.

Anarumo said Atkins was a "tick away" from adding to his sack count in Sunday’s 23-17 loss to the Ravens and believes those plays are bound to come.

The Bengals are expecting that from Atkins, too. In 2018, they gave Atkins a four-year deal worth $65.2 million deal that expires in 2022, when he will be 34 years old. No defensive player takes up a higher percentage of Cincinnati’s cap space than Atkins.

It’s not solely up to Atkins to fix the Bengals’ defense. As defensive end Sam Hubbard pointed out, creating more pressure starts with fixing the worst run defense in the league and creating more challenging third-down situations that are more conducive for sacks.

But when Atkins gets rolling, Hubbard said the whole line benefits.

"Geno’s a Hall of Fame player, in my opinion, and our leader and we feed off him and how great of a player he is," Hubbard said. "When he’s doing his thing inside, it makes it easy for all of us to just clean it up."

Even though Atkins doesn’t speak to the media, his play has spoken volumes during the bulk of his 10-year career. The Bengals are hopeful that continues to develop as they look for pieces that can turn the franchise into a winning one again.

"He’s doing some really good things," Anarumo said of Atkins. "It’s just the numbers aren’t there right now."