Geno Atkins: Power, Speed, Versatility and Leverage

Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t the only quarterback who got more acquainted with Geno Atkins this past season.

If pass-rushing defensive tackles are a hot topic around your dinner table, and I mean why wouldn’t they be, then you will undoubtedly be versed on the talents of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Geno Atkins. In any normal year Atkins would have been a very strong contender for defensive player of the year last season, but of course JJ Watt’s existence made that conversation moot fairly early on.

Still, in spite of not having the hardware to attest to it, Atkins had a fairly special season for an interior defensive lineman. Dominant, disruptive and deadly are words that are more often associated with a high-profile player at his position such as Ndamukong Suh, but they should be used to describe Atkins also.

The now 25-year-old was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft. He only started one game as a rookie, but was active for all 16 of the regular season and had three sacks. He quietly developed as a rookie, before announcing his arrival during his second season with 7.5 sacks. Although he was just 23 at the time, Atkins was playing for a team that was not only asking young players to play big roles, he was one of their three young pillars who they based their success on.

While rookies AJ Green and Andy Dalton led the offense, Atkins played 794 snaps and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ highest rated player on the Bengals’ roster. At 6’1 and 300 lbs, Atkins looked smaller on the field than he played. While his speed and quickness permeated through his game, the explosion of his power and strength were easily as impressive.

It quickly became clear during his third season in the NFL that Atkins had developed and was pushing closer and closer to his superstar potential.

Layout of the Process

Every sack was considered and examined under this set of criteria:

  • Where and how the defender lined up.
  • Whether the player beat a blocker or not.
  • The quality and position of those blockers was also noted.
  • Whether the player was double-teamed or not.
  • Whether the player was involved in a stunt with a teammate or not and the effects of that stunt.
  • The primary reason for the sack.
  • The game situation ie: time, quarter, score, down and distance.
  • How the player beat attempted blocks.
  • Whether the player attacked the football or settled for the tackle on the quarterback’s body.
  • How long it took the player to get to the quarterback.
  • How many yards each sack pushed the offense back by.
  • Where the player broke into the backfield.
  • Where the player tackled the quarterback.

Atkins’ Overall Results

With the Bengals’ very strong defensive line rotation, Atkins was never going to be playing over 90 percent of the team’s snaps. He played 868 snaps last season, second only to Michael Johnson for defensive linemen, which was good enough for 74.2 percent of the defense’s total. He rushed the passer 555 times, completing the journey 14 times for a 2.5 sack percentage.

Twelve of Atkins’ 14 sacks came from a four man front, while the other two came in a three man front against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 of the season. Atkins played defensive end in the three man front, lining up outside the right and left tackle once each. Everytime he sacked the quarterback from a four man front he was lined up as a defensive tackle, seven times to the left of the center and five times to the right side.

He never once beat a double-team for a sack, nor did he beat two separate block attempts before getting to the quarterback. Only once did he run a stunt with another defensive lineman, against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1, and on that occasion he didn’t come free because of that stunt. Only once did he not beat a block for a sack, against the Washington Redskins when pressure elsewhere broke up the play and Atkins got to Robert Griffin III ahead of his teammates.

Only three times did Atkins sack the quarterback when the Bengals were playing from behind. Importantly, one of those came when down by 28 points against the Baltimore Ravens who had Bobbie Williams, not Marshal Yanda, blocking him. Two of Atkins’ sacks came when the Bengals had a 17 point lead, while four came when the score was tied and the rest were within one score except for a nine point lead against the Dallas Cowboys. Most of Atkins’ sacks came in the fourth quarter, six, while he didn’t have a single sack in a second quarter all season and four each in first and third quarters.

His money was made against offensive guards rather than tackles and he only beat a center, Matt Birk, once all year. Atkins penetrated the pocket past the right guard nine times and the left guard four times. He beat the right guard outside seven times and only once outside the left guard. Sometimes he ran over blockers, these occasions were marked down as inside the player. Atkins only sacked the quarterback outside the pocket twice, once when he chased Tony Romo out of it before tracking him down in the flat and once on that Robert Griffin III sack.

Four of Atkins’ sacks came on first and 10, four more on second down and six on third downs. There was an average of 8.5 yards between the line of scrimmage and first down marker on his second down sacks, while there was an average of 7.16 on his third down sacks. Seven of his sacks came with exactly 10 yards between the line of scrimmage and the first down marker, but he didn’t have a single one when the distance was greater. He also never had a sack when the marker was within four yards of the line of scrimmage.

 Method Analysis

Timestamp Players Beaten Speed Rush Bull Rush Combination Other Specific Move
BAL, Q1 13:27 Matt Birk No Yes No No
BAL, Q4 10:16 Bobbie Williams No No No Pushed aside with arms
WAS, Q4 00:29 None No No No No
JAX, Q4 08:15 Mike Brewster No Yes No No
JAX, Q4 04:38 Mike Brewster No Yes No No
MIA, Q3 05:09 John Jerry No No No Leverage
PIT, Q3 09:34 Willie Colon No Yes No Leverage
KC, Q1 02:24 Eric Winston Yes No No No
OAK, Q1 13:37 Mike Brisiel Yes No No No
SD, Q3 03:46 Louis Vasquez No No No Bait and sidestep
DAL, Q4 14:29 Nate Livings No Yes No No
PIT, Q1 13:02 David DeCastro Yes No No No
PIT, Q3 13:36 Ramon Foster No Yes No No
PIT, Q4 13:56 David DeCastro Yes No No No

It’s easy to see why Atkins is such a difficult matchup for offensive linemen. If you don’t have the strength to battle him, he will simply run straight over you. If you don’t have the speed to keep up with him, he will run right by you. However, if you have the strength, but overplay the speed rush, then he will run over you with his strength and visa-versa. Basically, if you want to contain Atkins, you need to first and foremost match him physically. Few players in the league can do that.

We’ll get into it more later in the article, but Atkins has a lot of variety to his pass-rushing and is able to beat offensive linemen in a variety of ways because of his different talents.

Getting back to who rather than how, there isn’t a Carl Nicks, Logan Mankins, Evan Mathis, Jahri Evans or Marshal Yanda on the above list, but the standard isn’t exactly low either:

Name Snaps Sacks Allowed PFF Grade*
Matt Birk 756 3 -.4
Bobbie Williams 204 3 -2.5
Mike Brewster 367 2 -14.4
John Jerry 590 2 3.8
Willie Colon 429 4 4.6
Eric Winston 570 4 8.0
Mike Brisiel 629 1 -3.1
Louis Vasquez 615 2 8.6
Nate Livings 736 6 -1.6
David DeCastro 82 3 -2.6
Ramon Foster 612 2 9.4
Total 5590 31 15.0
Average 508.18 2.82 1.36

Notably, the players Atkins beat gave up very few sacks. The offensive linemen combined gave up one sack every 200 snaps in pass protection. For comparison sake, the offensive linemen Aldon Smith faced gave up a sack once every 100 snaps on average, while those JJ Watt beat gave up one every 150 snaps and Von Miller’s gave up one every 100 snaps.

This means that out of the group, the linemen Atkins faced gave up the fewest sacks per snap, however, it also must be noted that these numbers include the sacks that each player had. Each of Watt, Smith and Miller had more sacks than Atkins last year.

Timestamp Players Beaten Attacks Football Time Elapsed Yards
BAL, Q1 13:27 Matt Birk No 3.2 7
BAL, Q4 10:16 Bobbie Williams No 2.8 8
WAS, Q4 00:29 None No 6.4 15
JAX, Q4 08:15 Mike Brewster No 3.2 3
JAX, Q4 04:38 Mike Brewster No 3.2 4
MIA, Q3 05:09 John Jerry No 3.3 9
PIT, Q3 09:34 Willie Colon No 3.4 8
KC, Q1 02:24 Eric Winston Yes 3.0 4
OAK, Q1 13:37 Mike Brisiel No 2.0 7
SD, Q3 03:46 Louis Vasquez No 2.6 8
DAL, Q4 14:29 Nate Livings No 5.9 7
PIT, Q1 13:02 David DeCastro No 2.8 7
PIT, Q3 13:36 Ramon Foster No 3.5 8
PIT, Q4 13:56 David DeCastro Yes 2.9 12
Total 13 2 48.2 107
Average .93 .14 3.44 7.64

Much like JJ Watt, Atkins didn’t have as many opportunities to attack the football because of where he lined up on the field. Atkins more often than not was either still coming off his block as he went to take the quarterback down, or he was coming from a position where the quarterback could see him and protect the football.

It’s not fair to compare Watt or Atkins to any of the three defensive ends when it comes to speed. Those players don’t line up with a blocker over them on every single snap and are built to be faster. Not to mention the quarterback sees defensive tackles more often than them. Atkins did look to attack the football more often than Watt, but only slightly and he was slower on average to the quarterback than Watt was.

Excluding the plays when Atkins took the quarterback down outside of the pocket, against the Cowboys when he chased Romo and the Redskins when he didn’t beat a block, his fastest sack was 2.0 seconds against the Oakland Raiders and his slowest was 3.5 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

 Individual Play Analysis

Atkins’ most impressive sack may have come against the most impressive offensive lineman on his list. It must be said that Eric Winston is a free agent right now and he was playing right guard instead of his normal right tackle position on this occasion, but still his talent is such that it should transcend from the outside to the interior.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 18.12.14

Atkins is lined up at the left defensive tackle spot, right over the B-gap(between right guard and right tackle). However he is angled towards the right guard, Winston, and will look to engage him at the snap.

Winston

The offensive tackle outside is occupied by the left defensive end(neither are pictured above) which prevents the offensive line from double teaming Atkins. Atkins takes advantage of this by attacking Winston’s outside shoulder, initially using his size to get underneath him and negate Winston’s attempt to knock him backwards at the snap.

As the image above shows, when Atkins moves down the field, Winston is allowing his momentum to carry him forward(away from the quarterback) and he is sliding above Atkins while his feet come off the ground.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 18.12.42

Once Atkins gets to this point, it’s vital to recognise his hand usage that prevents Winston from recovering. In the first image, Winston could still reshuffle his feet and use Atkins’ momentum to push him past his quarterback, but because Atkins first knocks his hands away from him before using his arm to extend and push him backwards, the defensive lineman is able to essentially run free into the pocket.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 18.12.58

In less than a second, Winston has gone from being engaged with Atkins, to falling on the ground desperately trying to illegally pull him down as the defender runs clean at his quarterback.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 18.14.05

Atkins attacks the football to force a fumble that the Chiefs eventually recover.

Excellent football analyst Matt Waldman has a series on his website where he tries to find one play that boils down every single aspect of a player. Matt does this for draft prospects, but if you were to do one for Atkins, this would likely be it. It not only shows off his strength(holds off Winston initially), his leverage(gets underneath Winston), his hand usage(fighting off block), speed to the quarterback and his ability to locate and explode through the football.

Of course, that one play gives us a glimpse at every aspect of his game, but you need to look at others to see the potential of each individual aspect and how he can dominate in different ways.

Inevitably, being a defensive tackle will put your bull-rush into focus. Atkins may be short, but he’s definitely not small and he can use his bulk to overpower blockers on a consistent basis. That was shown off very early on against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 21.08.58

In a three man defensive line, Atkins moved outside to right defensive end spot. Even though it’s a three man line, he is still lined up outside of the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder. This isn’t a traditional three man front from a 3-4 alignment, it is a nickel package that is showing off a heavy blitz with no linebackers over the middle of the field.

Birk

At the snap, the Bengals rush six defenders to create a one-on-one scenario across the board. Atkins and Domata Peko are running a stunt, but Matt Birk plays it perfectly as he pushes Peko when he runs past him before settling back into his area to pick up Atkins.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 21.09.30

The result of the stunt pits Atkins against Birk, while the interior three offensive linemen are all occupied and in good positions at this point. Although Atkins has forward momentum because he is coming at speed from the stunt, he is slightly drifting to the left and at this stage the angle of his feet doesn’t really give him a perfect set to start his bull-rush.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 21.09.39

In spite of Birk’s clean base, Atkins immediately starts to drive him back into the quarterback and the center is very quickly lying on his back. Atkins doesn’t even really tackle Joe Flacco, but his overpowering of Birk was enough for him to fall into the quarterback and knock him to the ground.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 21.38.53

Against David DeCastro later on in the season, Atkins used only his speed to shoot past him for the sack. Atkins wasn’t exceptionally quick off the line of scrimmage, but once he got level with DeCastro and on his outside shoulder, he was able to sprint straight down the field to take down Ben Roethlisberger.

Step

Atkins also has the ability to knock defenders off balance with a quick step. Here he hesitates before taking a hard step inside that guard Louis Vasquez bites on hard. That slight movement creates enough space for Atkins to shoot through the gap and get the sack.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 21.46.43

From this point, Atkins is always going to get to the quarterback. he controls his size and uses his speed well in space, sometimes looking like an outside linebacker tracking down the quarterback.

This aspect of his play doesn’t just rear it’s head in the tight though. Against the Dallas Cowboys, he pushed Romo out of the pocket before winning the race to take him down.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 22.07.33

Atkins initially beat a block that involved a holding penalty(see the yellow flag in the first part of the above image) and Romo reacted to his presence by escaping towards the sideline. Despite having a head start, Atkins was able to catch up to him before he could get rid of the football for the sack.

Finally, Atkins’ use of his hands and size to create leverage is exceptional. On plays that often look like simple bull rushes at first viewing, the replays show off how he gets lower than his blocker and uses his hands to knock the blocker off balance.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 22.20.22

On this play, Atkins pushes Willie Colon all the way back into Ben Roethlisberger. Colin is one of the more talented offensive guards in the NFL, penalties and consistency were his major issues in Pittsburgh last year. As a former offensive tackle, he should be prepared to handle Atkins’ physical talents, but Atkins wins the hands battle and makes Colon’s physical gifts irrelevant.

Verdict

It’s easy to understand why so many analysts have fallen in love with Geno Atkins. He was the protagonist on all but one of his sacks this past season and showed off a repertoire of different ways to get to the quarterback. His sheer physical talent is being harnessed in the right way for him to continue to rack up the sacks throughout his career.

He’s not perfect though. Nobody is. What is his biggest question mark?

Atkins went six games last season without a sack. During those games he faced off against some of the better offensive lines and/or quarterbacks in the league. The Cleveland Browns kept their quarterback clean twice, while the Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans in the playoffs did once. In those games he had 15 total hurries and not once did he hit the quarterback.

It’s possible that Atkins was contained by better offensive linemen. Even though he had two sacks on opening night against the Baltimore Ravens, those sacks came against backup offensive lineman Bobbie Williams, not all-pro starter Marshal Yanda. However, it’s more likely that he is still just developing his consistency. When players hit great heights at such a young age, we tend to overlook the fact that they are still developing as players and as people.

Atkins should be coming to the end of his initial development stage, meaning that his fourth season in the league could be his best yet.

Previous articles in this series:
Von Miller
JJ Watt

Aldon Smith
Cameron Wake

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf