has given quarterbacks trouble all season long, posting 12.5 sacks. (Michael Keating/AP)
The Houston Texans are well aware of what Geno Atkins can do.
Atkins twice introduced himself to Houston's offensive line last season -- in a pair of Texans wins, one in the regular season and another in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Even though Atkins had only a so-so game in the first meeting, he can hardly be blamed for either loss.
That's especially true of Cincinnati's 31-10 setback in the playoffs. Atkins was the Bengals' best player that day, even if his efforts did not show on the scoreboard.
In 2012, his third season out of Georgia, Atkins turned from a solid defensive tackle into a dominant player. He finished with 12.5 sacks and constantly disrupted opposing offenses by powering his way into the backfield.
Can Houston keep him at bay Saturday or will he be a key to a Cincinnati upset? That's the subject of this round of "Break It Down" ...
We'll start with what may have been one of the most impressive individual displays of last year's postseason. Since Atkins lines up on the interior, one of the obvious ways to try to minimize his impact is to call plays to the outside.
That's all well and good, except when Atkins is able to do what he did to Houston center Chris Myers on this off-tackle run by Arian Foster.
That's Atkins circled, lined up over Myers. This play started on the hash mark at about the Houston 33-yard-line. I mention that because ... look where Atkins and Myers wound up:
That's a good 3-4 yards behind the line of scrimmage and wide enough that Myers and Atkins actually collided with Foster -- who, again, was trying to run wide of Houston's right tackle. When a defensive lineman makes a play like that, there's only so much an offense can do.
And this is basically what Atkins brings to the table: He's strong and explosive, with the solitary goal of trying to drive into the backfield. Because of that, he can be an extremely disruptive presence, even if there are ways for an offense to take advantage of that hard-charging approach.
But before we get there, another couple looks at why Atkins will be on Houston's minds heading into this weekend.
On Atkins' one sack during the wild-card matchup last year, he wound up one-on-one with right guard Mike Brisiel (Brisiel now plays for Oakland, and struggling rookie Ben Jones will draw the assignment of Atkins most of the time). It is difficult for teams to commit too much attention to Atkins, because the Bengals also possess a dangerous outside pass rusher in Michael Johnson.
Because a tight end often finds himself helping there, Atkins can thrive in those heads-up matchups, as he did last year against Brisiel.
The Texans also had minimal success running right at Atkins -- in the photo below, fullback Lawrence Vickers shot through the line to block a Cincinnati linebacker; Atkins, again one-on-one with Brisiel, closed the opening after Vickers passed and stuffed Ben Tate for no gain.
Atkins had a monster game against Pittsburgh in Cincinnati's clutch Week 16 victory this season. That effort came about even though the Steelers frequently left a running back deep to help pick up pressure.
On an early sack from Atkins, Steelers RB Isaac Redman flew out wide to chip DE Carlos Dunlap, which allowed Atkins to blow by inside.
Later, the same thing happened on the other side of the line -- Redman focused in on Michael Johnson, while center Maurkice Pouncey drifted to his left. Atkins, meanwhile, pushed his way deep into the backfield to record a shared sack.
Notice on both of those last two plays, though, the room straight up the middle. Roethlisberger's not a quarterback that will take off on a designed run very often (and neither is Houston's Matt Schaub), but the aggressive rushes of Atkins, Domata Peko and other Cincinnati interior linemen can leave the Bengals vulnerable to scrambles and/or draw plays. Don't be shocked if Foster or Tate burns Cincinnati with a delayed draw Saturday.
How else might Houston attack Atkins? Running plays totally away from him is another option -- as opposed to running wide to his side, as on that Foster carry that Atkins blew up from above.
Below, a Foster touchdown. Houston QB T.J. Yates tossed it wide left to Foster, while Atkins was lined up over the Texans' right guard.
The result: Even though Atkins pushed his man back several yards again, Foster was able to turn the corner down the opposite sideline -- meaning Atkins never had a chance to impact the play.
The other option in the run game, as mentioned above, is to delay action. Running a direct play right at Atkins has a low success probability, but hesitating enough to allow Atkins to plow forward a couple of yards could leave gaps for a draw or counter play to hit.
And in the passing game, there are a couple of ways Houston will go about slowing Atkins.
The first is simply double-teaming him, as it did on this play-action pass last year.
Schaub may also employ some three-step drops -- an approach designed to take away the possibility of a sack. Yates, though, often went with a seven-step drop during Houston's two games with Cincinnati last year, with play-action a key component there.
The benefit of a seven-step drop is that it provides more cushion for the QB and line, while allowing the receivers to get downfield. In Houston's Week 14 win over Cincinnati, Yates even utilized a play-action, seven-step drop from his own 3-yard line. Atkins bulled his way nearly six yards deep in the end zone on that play, but Yates still had enough room to plant and throw.
Odds are that Atkins will make his presence felt on more than one occasion Sunday. The Texans' goal will be to prevent him from totally taking over the game.
They can do that by using Atkins' aggressiveness against him and being smart with their play calls. Houston had enough success against the Bengals last season to know what it will take this time around -- even if Atkins proves dominant yet again.