As fans of the Cincinnati Bengals watched Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins stay on the ground minutes before halftime in the Thursday night loss to the Miami Dolphins, I doubt there was a single person who said, “We’ll be fine.”
But that’s the sentiment that the Bengals and head coach Marvin Lewis are believing as they found out that Atkins would be out the entire season due to an ACL tear.
The news was a huge blow given that the team is already without starting linebacker Rey Maualuga for two more weeks with his own knee injury, safety Taylor Mays’ season is done with a shoulder injury, and veteran Leon Hall is out for the year with an Achilles injury.
But coach Lewis and the rest of the team know that injuries are a part of the game and are no excuse for a unit as talented as Cincinnati’s.“I think the good thing is we have a lot of good players, and guys have to rise up, step up and go,” Lewis told the Cincinnati Enquirer “We’ve got to do other great things. We can score a lot of points if we need to and we can play great defense if we need to, so we need to keep doing it.”
By playing great defense, coach Lewis is refering to the big-time players on the defensive side of the football like DT’s Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson who have 4.0 and 2.5 sacks respectively. Dunlap has proved his worth this season and put his abilities on display on Thursday by forcing a fumble against Lamar Miller downfield in what would have ended up a Dolphins’ touchdown. Michael Johnson, who is coming off a career-year of 11.5 sacks, has a lot of ground to make up, especially if he wants to land it big during free agency in the offseason.
The defensive line is also fortified by veteran tackle Domata Peko. Given Atkins’ absence the rest of the season, the team will need Peko to continue with his already impressive season of 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
I still doubt, even with all of the remaining talent on the Bengals’ defense, that they will continue to be as dominant as they have the first half this season. You can’t just replace a top-ranked tackle like Atkins who collected his team-leading sixth sack last Thursday, and expect the same results.
But Bengals’ defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer dealt with a similar plague of injuries in 2008 and that unit finished 12th in the NFL.
And if you think coach Zimmer is worried now, check out what he told the Cincinnati Enquirer about Atkins’ absence.
“What we have to do is affect the quarterback however we can affect him. There’s a lot of different ways to do that. Geno didn’t play every snap, so we had other guys playing. It’s not like, well maybe we were shitty half those other times. And Leon hasn’t played in four or five games now. He missed two earlier. Obviously we’d love to have those guys because they’re good guys and good players and fit into our system, but it is what it is. We’re not going to go cry and climb into a hole if we don’t have this guy and don’t have that guy. We’re going to do the best job we can.”
The Bengals’ defense isn’t solely reliant on the defensive line, but it is definitely the brick and mortar. It’s the reason why the team’s defense is ranked 5th in overall yards in the NFL. And when your “big guy” in the middle, who leads the team in sacks and is constantly taking on double teams goes down, your numbers go down – actually, it’s up in this case.
The saving grace in all of this is that the remaining schedule is cake compared to the first half of the season. Of the remaining games, only one is against a team with a winning record – Indianapolis Colts (6-2) in Week 14.
The rest of the teams are a combined 17-32, with two games against the Baltimore Ravens – this week and again in the season finale – whose offense is offensive. The rest are against the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, none of which have a threatening offense.
The other good news is that the Bengals will only be playing two games in November with a long week this week following the Thursday night game on Halloween, and the bye week following the Browns game, the team will have a chance to get players healthy for the playoffs.
And there is the rub: if the Bengals make the playoffs.
After the tough loss to a reeling Dolphins team and the injuries to the defense, fans aren’t as certain that the playoffs are a matter of just waiting for January to arrive.
The Bengals will be playing the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday which hasn’t been very kind to them in the past. Even though the Ravens’ offense ranks last in rushing yards, and the passing game is meager at best due to the horrid offensive line play, the Bengals can’t underestimate a team like the Ravens that is hungry for a win.
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