Atkins latest defensive lineman to go on season-ending IR

Veteran struggled with a shoulder injury in 2020

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor smiled at the recollection of watching Geno Atkins next to D.J. Reader in pass rush drills during training camp.

Unfortunately for the Bengals, they never got to see that translate on the field this season, and there is some speculation the 11th-year veteran defensive tackle may have played his last game for Cincinnati even with two years left on his contract.

Atkins, 32, suffered a right shoulder injury the first week of September and was limited all year, finally landing on injured reserve Wednesday after recording one tackle and no sacks in eight games. Reader, signed to a three-year deal this offseason, suffered a season-ending quad injury in Week 5 at Baltimore.

“Competing against that defensive line every day with him and D.J. Reader, they were playing at a very high level in training camp,” Taylor said in a Zoom news conference Thursday. “It was exciting to watch that interior defensive line go. (Renell) Wren was a part of that as well early on when we had those first couple practices. How quickly that changed once we had those three injuries. But (Geno Atkins) was playing at a high level in training camp.”

After taking the first four weeks of the season off to let the shoulder heal, Atkins returned in that Oct. 11 game at Baltimore, playing a season-high 19 snaps as a third-down specialist. Taylor repeatedly was asked about Atkins’ limited snap counts and the second-year head coach continued to point to him working through the shoulder injury.

Finally, it got to the point this week where Atkins decided it was time to undergo surgery. Taylor said there is no timeline on his recovery and also indicated that quarterback Brandon Allen continues to be day-to-day with a knee bruise, running back Joe Mixon (foot) remains out and cornerback Trae Waynes (shoulder) won’t return this season.

“He’s a man that doesn’t give up,” defensive tackle Christian Covington said of Atkins. “He’s gonna put his team, ... his teammates first. He wants to be able to give this team every opportunity to be able to be successful and get wins. He’s a fighter, at the end of the day. He’s been nursing this thing for a long, long time. And he’s been trying to fight, fight, fight for himself, for this team. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really worked out this season with us as far as the wins are concerned but you know he’s been a fighter on this defensive line. He’s been a leader on this defensive line. And we’ve just been trying to reciprocate that as well, trying to fight every week and that’s all you really can do.”

Atkins, originally a fourth-round pick of the Bengals in 2010, has played in 161 career games (134 starts), and stands third in team history with 75.5 sacks. The other active player ahead of him on that list, Carlos Dunlap, forced a trade earlier this year after his role reduced from starter to third-down pass rusher.

Covington said although he didn’t get much time on the field with Atkins, he learned a lot from him.

“Really just how to be a professional on and off the off the field,” Covington said. “You know that brother’s been doing his thing his whole entire career for the Bengals and for the city of Cincinnati. And not knowing him early in my career, not knowing who he was on a personal level, to come to this team, to be around him, to learn from him, to learn what it takes to be a true NFL player, what it means to be a true citizen off this field, it’s something that speaks volumes with what he’s done for this community and what he’s done for this team in his career. So, obviously it’s sad to know that he has to go on IR. I was just talking to him yesterday and I wished him the best with regards to the surgery that’s coming up, so yeah we’re gonna miss him. We’re gonna miss his presence.”

The Bengals could use some Atkins in his prime about now as they set to host Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) on Monday Night Football, but Atkins has been on a downturn since 2018. He recorded 10 sacks, after signing a four-year $65.2 million contract extension at age 30, and then in 2019, he had just 4.5 sacks.

Atkins never played more than 30 percent of the defensive snaps this season, but Covington felt like teams were still accounting for him when he came in the game.

“The name Geno Atkins speaks for itself,” he said. “You already knew that teams were going to slide to him, double him, ship him with these running backs coming up and under in the A and B gap. You saw it all year. I feel bad for the guy. He’s just been a fighter, he’s had to fight, fight, fight. For him to go down like this, it hurts but he’ll be back and he’ll be healthy.”

Defensive lineman Margus Hunt, who spent the 2013-16 seasons with the Bengals before returning this year, said he learned how to get under the opponent’s pads by watching how Atkins used leverage to help his game.

That might not help him this week as Roethlisberger is tough to bring down, regardless of technique. Many defensive linemen have memories of trying to bring down Big Ben and failing. Hunt said he’s only gotten close once. Roethlisberger has been sacked just 11 times this season.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten that close to him actually,” Hunt said. “There was one time I – I think it was my last year here when we played over in Pittsburgh – I came out of my stance and I knew it was play-action and fullback came and cut me and I tried to hurdle him but he still got enough of my foot that I landed face in the dirt in front of Ben and he got rid of the ball. I was pretty (mad).”


Steelers at Bengals, 8:15 p.m., ESPN, NFL, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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