A year ago, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins was the scourge of the AFC North as a practically unblockable interior force.
Atkins had been rewarded with a five-year, $55 million contract extension before last season, a testament to how disruptive and reliable the former Georgia star had become.
Then Atkins' right knee buckled against the Miami Dolphins last October as he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. The injury ended Atkins' season and created doubts about whether he'd ever regain his All-Pro form. From 2011 to 2013, Atkins led all NFL defensive tackles with 26 sacks.
Although Atkins has started every game this season heading into Sunday's game against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium, he hasn't been quite the same player. Atkins has only seven tackles, no sacks and three quarterback hits this season.
The once-explosive Atkins has had problems shedding blocks and penetrating the pocket for a Bengals defense that has struggled mightily. Cincinnati ranks 31st in total defense, 30th against the run and 27th against the pass, allowing 416.7 yards of total offense per game. They've allowed 23.3 points per game, No. 18 overall in the league.
But Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said he has seen improvement in Atkins' health and play in recent weeks.
"Well, he's 100 percent, but obviously, it's an injury that takes time," Lewis said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "He played more and more effectively, and I think each and every week, we see more and more of him anytime he gets singled up [blocking.] He's been an effective rusher over the last few weeks."
The Bengals sorely need for Atkins to get back to his old self. Over the past three games, first-year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's unit has allowed an average of 35.6 points per game.
Atkins and Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda, a Pro Bowl selection who's again having a banner season, have had some epic battles in the past. Despite Atkins' injury last year, Yanda is preparing for Atkins as if he's at his best.
"Geno, he's got the tools," Yanda said. "Obviously, he's shown it before. He's got the lateral quickness. He's a very powerful guy. His quickness and power are his two deals. He's a good player."
When it comes to choosing an adviser for how to handle himself away from football, Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel could do a lot worse than listening to Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James.
Manziel hangs out with James, a friend whose business partner, Maverick Carter, manages the marketing of the former Heisman Trophy winner.
"He's done a good job, which I'm thankful for, of kind of checking in on me, making sure things are good," Manziel said of James to Cleveland reporters. "I've gone out to his house a couple of times and gotten the chance to kind of get away and relax."
Manziel said that as he tries to learn how to be a public figure, he notes how James conducts himself. Manziel is in the background more than he's accustomed to nowadays as the backup to Brian Hoyer.
"There's been enough drama around me and my life for a couple of years now," Manziel said. "For me, I know whenever [training] camp was over, when we got into the roles of who was going to play what role, Brian was named the starter. I was named the backup. Now I need to play my role of being the backup, and that's that."
The Browns face the winless Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
Slow going for Steelers' Harrison
It hasn't been the triumphant return the Pittsburgh Steelers envisioned when they brought back veteran outside linebacker James Harrison.
The 36-year-old was re-signed four games ago, and the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year has no sacks and seven tackles. The lack of production raises questions about how much Harrison, who had retired in September, has left in the tank.
"I'm not there yet," Harrison told Pittsburgh reporters ahead of Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts. "Not even close. I'm in the process of going in the right direction and getting back into playing shape. I'm basically coming out of preseason right now. I feel a lot better than I did four weeks ago. I'm starting to be able to play more because I'm getting more conditioned. I'm seeing things better because I'm moving better."