- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- Aside from the one or two random shouts of anger that arose from one particular corner of the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room late Thursday night, quiet conversations and hush-toned interviews dominated the sound levels inside the space.
The Bengals were looking for answers and searching for direction mere minutes after returning to their cramped Sun Life Stadium quarters from a 22-20 overtime loss to the Dolphins. The heartbreak didn't end there. As reporters began hopping between interview subjects, news began spreading throughout the room that yet another key defender was being lost for the season. Preliminary tests had showed that All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins had torn an ACL in the game.
Hours later, back home, those fears were confirmed when an MRI came back positive.
In the days after Atkins' season-ending injury was revealed, coach Marvin Lewis felt his team needed a lift. He believed it needed some kind of pep-talk and pick-me-up that might let all involved know that everything was going to be OK.
So he did a little research.
"I explained, I showed our guys that if you look at the last four or five Super Bowl champions and the amount of people that went on IR, they've overcomed it," Lewis said. "If you go all the way back to 2009 with the New Orleans Saints, and you go each year, you look at those teams, and those teams put double-digit numbers of players on injured reserve."
He's right. The research and math adds up.
Last season, the Baltimore Ravens had 13 players on IR entering their Super Bowl showdown with the San Francisco 49ers. The New York Giants had 11 before winning the Lombardi Trophy the year before. A year before that, the Packers had 14 on IR. And in 2009, the Saints had 16 on IR when they beat the Colts.
Lewis' message to his team: injured teams can be winners, too.
With Atkins' addition to the IR, the Bengals now have eight players unable to compete the rest of the season. He joined cornerback Leon Hall, defensive back Taylor Mays and defensive end Robert Geathers as key contributors who have been added to the list since the season began. In the preseason, linebackers Sean Porter, Brandon Joiner and Emmanuel Lamur were placed on IR, along with defensive tackle Larry Black, the Cincinnati native whose ankle injury was chronicled on HBO's "Hard Knocks." Black was trying to make the team, and had begun really catching the coaches' attention just prior to the injury.
It is Lewis' opinion that with each of those Super Bowl-winning teams, it was the intangibles that eventually surfaced and helped carry those talented groups all the way to their respective championships.
"Their leadership of the team, the maturity of the team, it all plays out," Lewis said. "The playmakers of the team have to step up and win, and the coaching of the team."
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose unit has been hit hardest by these injuries -- each of the players on IR are defensive players, and another two, linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Devon Still, are still battling through injuries that will have caused them to miss significant time once they return -- had a similar message this week.
"We've got competitors that like to compete," Zimmer said. "So they don't want me to say, 'We can't win now because we don't have Geno, and Leon, and this guy.' They don't want to hear that. Imagine if I walked in that room and said that to these guys. 'Oh no, we can't win now. What are we going to do?'"
If Zimmer had relayed such sentiments to them, some Bengals say they would have simply ignored him. One of them, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, believes he and the rest of a now more inexperienced defensive line can only remain focused on trying to win games.
As badly as Thompson feels for his friend and mentor Atkins, he knows he has a real opportunity to make a name for himself and to keep this top-10-ranked defense on track.
"Injuries are a part of the game," Thompson said. "We lost one of our best defensive tackles, but we've got to push forward and keep doing what we're doing, which is come out there every day and work hard, and be the best team we can be."
Along with Thompson, the Bengals' new Atkins-less pass rush will feature a rotation that eventually includes second-year players Still and Kheeston Randall. Still said Wednesday that he was rehabbing from an elbow injury that arose in the win at Detroit three games ago, but was hopeful that after this week he'll be close to full strength. With Still continuing to work through his injury, the Bengals signed Randall to the 53-man roster Tuesday in an effort to shore up depth on the line.
As odd as it might seem, the Bengals really are motivated by the bevy of injuries that have ransacked their roster. Just as Lewis believes his team can live up to its lofty expectations and obtain the greatness that he believes still exists, the players themselves view the hurt-filled past few weeks as motivation, too.
"Geno and Robert, those are our brothers," Thompson said. "We grind with those boys every day. We spend more time with them than their own families do. So we grow a bond, and seeing those guys go out, it makes us want to work harder and become better for those guys. We're ready for this."