The undersized lineman is considered one of the NFL’s best.
The third-year player was chosen as a Pro Bowl starter Wednesday, his first such honor. He was an alternate last season. He and receiver A.J. Green — another former Georgia star — were voted as starters, while four other Bengals are alternates.
There wasn’t much talk about the 6-foot-1 Atkins when the Bengals took him in the fourth round in 2010. He leads all NFL interior linemen with 19½ sacks over the last two seasons, including 12½ this year.
“I want to get better and show the world that even though I am 6-foot-1, 300 pounds, I can still be the best,” Atkins said.
His size worked against him when he came out of Georgia. The NFL prefers taller linemen with longer arms. Atkins has learned how to use his size to his advantage, getting low and making a push that’s hard to blunt.
He’s become a dominating player.
“He’s got (12½) sacks and that doesn’t even tell the story,” offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “The real story is people turning on the film and seeing play-in and play-out how he disrupts plays. Sometimes people just look at sacks and say he’s disruptive. The truth is he’s far more disruptive than just sacks.
“Week to week, he takes over. Stats don’t tell you everything.”
Atkins is the most impressive player on a defense that has carried the Bengals to the playoffs for a second straight season. Cincinnati (9-6) clinched a wild card spot with a 13-10 win in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Atkins had two sacks and was regularly in the Steelers’ backfield.
The Bengals finish the regular season at home on Sunday against AFC North champion Baltimore (10-5). Cincinnati will open the playoffs on the road against the Ravens, the Patriots, the Texans or the Broncos, depending upon how other games turn out on Sunday.
As the Ravens watched film of the Bengals’ defense this week, one player stood out.
“Geno Atkins is a force out there,” running back Ray Rice said. “He by far is one of the best D-linemen around. As a running back, you want to know where he is at all times, because you don’t want to cut back into his lane and let him make that kind of play.”
Atkins was honored on Thursday as the AFC’s defensive player of the week for his performance in Pittsburgh, which included eight tackles and one forced fumble when he got to Ben Roethlisberger. He’s also getting mention as a candidate for defensive player of the year, although he expects a defensive end or linebacker — someone with more chances to get sacks — to get more consideration than a tackle.
“You usually get the grunt work and not 19 or 20 sacks,” Atkins said. “They’re playing more of a glamour position.”
Atkins was a first alternate for the Pro Bowl last season, when he tied for the lead among NFL interior linemen with 7½ sacks. He’s far and away the leader this season with his 12½ sacks — Ndamukong Suh of Detroit is second with 7.
“I think I’m finally getting respect around the league that I show out there on the field,” he said.
He’ll have some company.
Green was voted a starter as a rookie last season and made it again, impressive for a receiver who is already challenging Bengals records for a season. Green has 1,324 yards receiving, 116 shy of Chad Johnson’s club record for a season.
“Two years, two Pro Bowls. That’s got a good buzz to it,” Green said. “But I’ve got a long way to go to be where I want to be. I want to be great.
“Like I told everybody when I came into this game, I don’t want to be one ordinary receiver. I want to be mentioned with some of the best that ever played. That’s what my goal is: One of the best that ever played.”
Whitworth and tight end Jermaine Gresham were voted first alternates. Quarterback Andy Dalton and cornerback Leon Hall are third alternates.