CINCINNATI– The brutality to football is an accepted fact. That acceptance doesn’t make its reality easy.
The Bengals lost All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins Thursday night to a torn right anterior cruciate ligament during the second quarter of their 22-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. Atkins planted his leg while attempting to fight through a block on what would be a three-yard run by Dolphins running back Lamar Miller with just over four minutes left in the first half.
The force of Atkins’ compact 6-foot-1, 303-pound frame planting into the natural grass against the weight of an offensive lineman was too much for his right knee. Before he hit the ground there was trouble. Miller landing on the knee at the end of the play certainly didn’t help matters but the most severe damage was already done.
An MRI Friday in Cincinnati confirmed the Bengals’ fears from Thursday night.
The loss of Atkins could end up being bigger in the long run than the loss on the scoreboard, especially when put in combination with the previous losses of cornerback Leon Hall, safety Taylor Mays, defensive end Robert Geathers and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur. Atkins was the high motor foundation of the Bengals defense, a unit that starts everything with its defensive line.
According to NFL national writer Brian McIntire, the Bengals will have $20.7 million in cap dollars on injured reserve once Atkins is officially placed on the season-ending list. That’s the third-most in NFL & 15.4 percent of their adjusted cap number. Atkins will become the eighth player on IR for the Bengals. All eight are on the defense.
“We’re still trying to swallow that right now,” said nose tackle Domata Peko in the postgame locker room. “That’s one of the best players in the whole league, Geno. Hopefully it ain’t too bad of an injury. We’ve just got to move on. Next man up has to come out and turn up and play better. I think all of us are going to have to get better missing big Geno. He’s a lot to the defense and a big part of this team.”
The Bengals have nine days before they face division rival Baltimore on the road. That’s followed with a home game against Cleveland on Nov. 17 and then the bye week. At 6-3, the Bengals are still in first place in the AFC North by two games over Baltimore (3-4) and 2½ over Cleveland (3-5). The Ravens and Browns play in Cleveland on Sunday, a matchup that is going to prove critical for the winner.
The Bengals played the Dolphins without linebackers Rey Maualuga (knee/concussion) and Michael Boley (hamstring), and defensive tackle Devon Still (elbow), as well as left tackle Andrew Whitworth (knee). Rookie running back Gio Bernard left the game with what head coach Marvin Lewis described as bruised ribs after scoring the second of two touchdowns on a 35-yard run in which he broke at least four tackles while reversing field.
Next man up in the case of replacing Atkins will fall to a combination of Wallace Gilberry, who plays both inside and on the end, Still – when he is able to return – and Brandon Thompson. Still and Thompson were second- and third-round picks, respectively, last year. Thompson played 36 of the 63 defensive snaps (57 percent) Thursday, his most extensive action of the season. Margus Hunt’s development could also be accelerated.
Miami had its best offensive production Thursday in the first half, especially when it came to running the ball. The Dolphins rushed for 142 yards in the first half as part of their 227-yard total while taking 10-3 lead. The Bengals held them to 15 yards rushing in the second half without Atkins.
“(Thompson) Did some things that are good, did some things that we need to improve on, everybody does,” said Lewis on Friday. “We didn’t play very good upfront on the defensive line yesterday. We need to play better. We didn’t get off to a good start when Geno was in there, and we didn’t play very good until the second half of the football game.”
Lewis did say he was pleased with the play of linebacker Vinny Rey, who played in place of Maualuga. Rey was credited with five tackles. He did miss a tackle on a 41-yard run by Miller in the second quarter, a play in which defensive end Carlos Dunlap hustled down field and forced a fumble that cornerback Adam Jones recovered in the end zone and returned back to the Bengals’ 41-yard line.
“There’s obviously things that the front didn’t help any with early in the game, but he was able to keep his focus and just keep playing,” said Lewis. “I thought he did a good job in coverage. I thought he was in the right spots run wise. He missed the one tackle on what happened to be their long run, but we’ve got to get the ball turned back and make it easier for him. We had a lot of other guys that didn’t play that real good at the point.”
There was an instantaneous shock that went through the team two weeks ago at Detroit when Hall ruptured his right Achilles tendon covering Lions’ wide receiver Calvin Johnson. It was Hall’s second torn Achilles in three seasons – he tore his left one in 2011 – and forced some quick adjustments by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and the players.
Atkins’ injury sent the same kind of shock wave Thursday. Lewis, Zimmer and the players will again have to adjust. Somehow.
“Hopefully we get a couple of guys on both sides of the ball back healthy coming into the next game,” said cornerback Terence Newman. “You hate to see your teammates go down – you hate to see anyone go down but it basically opens up an opportunity for someone else to step up and make plays. That’s just the mentality you have to have.
“You hate to see Geno go down. We’ve had two of our best defensive players (Hall and Atkins) go down in two of the last three ballgames. It’s tough but this team has had adversity before. We just have to fight through it.”