Hours before being named to his second Pro Bowl in as many years, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins took a moment to reflect on his first trip to the star-studded event in Hawaii.
After completing a sophomore season that included tying Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly for the most sacks by an interior lineman and returning one fumble for a touchdown, Atkins was looking forward to basking in the sun and the spotlight that accompanies being named one of the top players in the NFL. But long before he was to go, his coach gave him an assignment.
"You get an opportunity to go play in the Pro Bowl, but when you're over there, learn from the others, learn from experienced players what makes their team good year after year after year," Marvin Lewis recalled during a conference call with Baltimore media.
Atkins was the dutiful student, connecting with peers such as the Raiders' Richard Seymour and picking their brains.
"I asked them how they got there, what they did," Atkins said. "They gave me little tips about resting your body, film study and just making sure anything you do ... [that you] just try to perfect your craft and take mental reps."
Atkins, 24, appears to have taken the advice to heart. Atkins ranks fifth in the league in sacks (13), trailing only Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (20.5), San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (19.5), Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (17.5) and Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wakefield (15).
Atkins also leads Cincinnati in quarterback pressures (35) and tackles for loss (13), posted a season-best 2.5 sacks in the team's 13-10 win Sunday over the Pittsburgh Steelers that helped clinch a playoff berth.
Atkins will be one of the bigger concerns for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco this Sunday.
"He's a good player," Flacco said. "We've been playing him for a few years now, and I think our guys on the [offensive line] would tell you that he's a very good player and they have a lot of respect for him."
At 6 feet and 300 pounds, Atkins does not have the prototypical size that NFL scouts covet, but Ravens center Matt Birk compared Atkins favorably to former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle John Randle, who also dealt with questions about his 6-1, 287-pound frame despite recording 137.5 sacks — the most by an interior lineman in league history.
"If you can play, you can play," Birk said. Atkins is "very strong, plays with great leverage, very quick. He slants, tries to get into gaps, does that well. Size is only relative to how much strength you have. He has a great amount of strength, plays with great leverage. So the prototype thing, that's more like scout talk. The guy can just flat out play, and that's obvious."
NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said Atkins' play is an indicator of his growth in the NFL.
"I would venture to say that the difference between those sacks last year and the sacks this year is mental," said Dukes, a former Atlanta Falcons center. "What he's learned, what he knows, the techniques that he's learned, the light bulb has just gone on for him, and that's what happens with players all the time. They make that kind of jump, but it's more like an epiphany. The talent didn't change, but who they were in the system that they play, that's the epiphany."
Atkins is part of a defensive front that has accounted for 38 of the Bengals' 44 sacks, second in the NFL. He is quick to share credit when asked about being the premier interior lineman in the league.
"It feels pretty good, but I have a good group of guys like [nose tackle] Domata Peko, [defensive ends] Michael Johnson, Robert Geathers, Carlos Dunlap and a good supporting cast like them helping me," Atkins said. "[The coaches are] calling a good coaching scheme and coaching us in our fundamentals."
Atkins is unlikely to break defensive end Coy Bacon's franchise record for sacks in a single season (22 in 1976) this year, but with one against the Ravens he would move into second place alone (Bengals defensive end Eddie Edwards had 13 sacks in 1983).
Atkins has worked hard to improve, and has achieved success that even he did not initially envision.
"Each year, I strive to get better and try to perfect things that I didn't do well last year," he said. "I try to carry that over from year to year. I am kind of surprised about the double-digit [sacks], but I work hard for it. I just have to thank the coaches and the players around me for helping me get there."