Wednesday, January 29, 2014
How costly was Geno Atkins' injury?
By Coley Harvey
CINCINNATI -- Yes, it's the offseason, meaning the time of year has arrived when media entities compile their sundry end-of-season lists.
As you might have been able to tell, the list frenzy hit ESPN.com's Cincinnati Bengals blog about two weeks ago when we started counting down the top 10 plays from the 2013 season. We've also devoted lists to breaking down the team's position groups, and will have even more list-form analysis regarding other items in the coming months.
Such blogs are good complements to other coverage. They can further and firm what has already been reported, or be good jumping off points for generating discussion as seasons get reviewed and the results of others predicted.
Geno Atkins' participation in practice had the Bengals pumped on Wednesday.
Over the weekend, Pro Football Focus trotted out one particular list-based blog that evaluated the "costliest" injuries around the league this season. The countdown looked at 10 players across the NFL whose statistics and grade of play made them difficult to replace. The list also included a group of three players who were considered honorable mentions for costliest injury. Of the 13 total players, two were Bengals.
Most notably, PFF said it felt defensive tackle Geno Atkins had the NFL's costliest injury in 2013. Cornerback Leon Hall made the additional three-man cut.
Both are, in fact, among the top players on a defense that entered the season regarded universally as one of the best. That alone made it more difficult to replace them, driving up the metaphoric cost of their mid-season injuries.
But, really, how costly did those injuries -- specifically Atkins' -- turn out to be? After all, without the Pro Bowl lineman and the cornerback who was having a Pro Bowl type of start to his eighth season, the Bengals still finished near the top of the league's defensive rankings. In holding opponents to an average of 305.0 yards per game, Cincinnati ranked third in total defense.
A large part of the reason why the Bengals were able to garner such a high ranking was because they got contributions from other parts of their defense to absorb the injuries to Atkins and Hall. Atkins went down at Miami in Week 9 when he tore an ACL trying to make a tackle. Hall tore an Achilles two weeks prior when he was trying to out-jump Detroit's Calvin Johnson on a fade route into the back of the end zone.
According to PFF, Atkins' replacement, Brandon Thompson, and fellow interior line starter Domata Peko, had issues getting pressure and stopping the run. Thompson had two sacks and no quarterback hits, while Peko "struggled mightily alongside him," the blurb said.
It's tough to really say Atkins' fellow defensive tackles played poorly, because while they may not have been getting pressure or stopping the run with regularity, they were getting help from others. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry each had 7.5 sacks, and fellow end Michael Johnson tied for a league-high eight pass deflections at the line. The Bengals' third-down conversion rating was the second highest in the league this season and the highest at home. Even if the Bengals' interior linemen had issues stopping the run overall, they were still doing something right on third down.
It's also unfair to fully pin replacing Atkins' production on Thompson and Peko. They weren't the only ones playing defensive tackle in the wake of Atkins' injury. Fellow tackle Devon Still mixed in a bit at Atkins' old spot, as did ends Gilberry and Margus Hunt. Linebacker James Harrison also played at tackle in certain nickel situations to provide an additional athletic pass-rusher on the interior during passing downs.
Part of PFF's decision to deem Atkins' injury the costliest in the league hinged on the fact that he was the site's Defensive Player of the Year runner-up the year before, and the fact he amassed a dizzying plus-80.0 grade in 2012 from it. That grade was more than double what any other defensive tackle received from the site that season.
Indeed, replacing the best player in the league at his position is a tall, unenviable task. But upon further review, it was one the Bengals actually passed quite easily.
With respect to Hall, though, the challenges for continuity were even greater. The domino effect of his injury and others meant still-learning second-year player Dre Kirkpatrick was thrust into more playing time, as was veteran Chris Crocker, who came out of retirement four weeks into the season. Challenges aside, though, like Atkins' replacement, Hall's held firm without him. Kirkpatrick had his problems combating double moves and deep, wide-open receivers, but he still finished with three interceptions, including two that effectively iced a key win.
Should the injuries to Atkins and Hall have been costly? Most definitely. But the Bengals' talent was just deep enough to prove the pair wasn't completely irreplaceable.