The Cincinnati Bengals are still 6-3 after getting spooked by the Miami Dolphins’ defense in a 22-20 overtime loss on Halloween night. But they left South Florida with a more chilling feeling: The leader of their own defense is lost for the season.
After the game, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis confirmed the team’s worst fears: The right knee injury that defensive tackle Geno Atkins suffered in the second quarter is likely a torn ACL that would put an end to his 2013 season.
MORE: Walkoff safety | Box score | Bernard's crazy TD run | Week 9 photo gallery
It didn’t look good for Atkins when he fell awkwardly to the ground with just more than four minutes left before halftime. He stayed there for a while before being helped off the field and then carted into the locker room.
Before the injury, Atkins was his usual disruptive force in the middle, with an early sack of quarterback Ryan Tannehill that helped keep the Dolphins scoreless. Right after he left, Miami ran inside on three of the next four plays, including a Tannehill sneak, to score its touchdown.
With Atkins done for the rest of the night, the Bengals couldn’t stop the run as well as usual or get into the face of the oft-sacked Tannehill much. Miami was the first team to see the how different it is not to have Atkins’ quick and compact 286-pound body slamming into the line.
ROSS TUCKER: Understandable why Dolphins O-lineman snapped
The Bengals know they can get quarterback Andy Dalton back on track after he cooled off badly at the end of a hot month. They know they can play less sloppy offense overall. They know rookie running back Giovani Bernard should be back up and dazzling with extra time to heal his rib injury.
Geno Atkins (AP Photo)
But there’s no quick recovery from Atkins going down. He is an elite defender who draws all the attention of blockers and is the linchpin of the Bengals’ swarming, talented front seven.
That group was already without middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (sprained MCL) on Thursday. In the secondary, the team is still working hard to hold up without cornerback Leon Hall (torn ACL). Still, the Bengals had avoided any devastating injuries that could diminish their Super Bowl potential.
Atkins’ injury qualifies as devastating. His replacement in the rotation, Brandon Thompson, was adequate Thursday, but everyone in the league is a monstrous drop-off from the best interior pass rusher the game has seen since Warren Sapp. Atkins not only blows by blockers, but it takes multiple blockers to account for him on every snap.
On a not-flashy young team like the Bengals, and given his unsexy position on the field and image as the classic strong silent type, Atkins is the superstar who somehow doesn’t get enough attention.
Consider these numbers: He had produced 17 1/2 sacks in the Bengals’ past 24 regular-season games. The Bengals showed him plenty of the attention, not to mention the money, when they rewarded him with a six-year, $56.4 million contract ($31 million guaranteed) last September.
There is still promise for the Bengals’ offense, but a defense led by Atkins made Cincy a team that could scare the Denver Broncos because of its ability to pressure Peyton Manning. The unit already showed Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady how stifling it could be in wins over the Packers and Patriots.
While the Bengals are still the best team in the weak AFC North and should graduate from wild-card team in 2011 and 2012 to division champion in 2013, this season was about bigger goals. Now they are without their best weapon to counterpunch Manning, Brady and Andrew Luck in potential postseason matchups.
Think of what it would mean for the Bengals’ offense to lose wide receiver A.J. Green, a nightmare matchup for every opponent. That’s the reality the Bengals’ defense faces minus the powerful Atkins.