Blocking Geno

PITTSBURGH – The Cincinnati Bengals lead the NFL with 43 sacks and the leader of their pass-rushing mob is a short defensive tackle who split time at his position at the University of Georgia and ...

... really didn't make a name for himself until the Senior Bowl, when he dominated highly touted and massive offensive guard Mike Iupati.

But that didn't help Geno Atkins in the draft. In fact, Iupati still went in the first round, to the 49ers, while Atkins went in the fourth to the Bengals.

No NFL interior lineman has had more sacks since. And no NFL interior lineman is a close second this season to his 10½ sacks.

The 6-1, 300-pound Atkins has 21 sacks since draft day 2010 and is the focus of the Steelers' offensive line for Sunday in one of the most important AFC games of the season.

"Geno Atkins is having an exceptional year," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "He breaks down the interior of the pocket. He doesn't allow quarterbacks to slide up in the pocket to deliver passes. It makes for a nice edge for their edge rushers. … Their rush is highly coordinated and those guys work well together."

Atkins primarily plays left defensive tackle for the Bengals, so he'll line up most of the time over rookie right guard David DeCastro. But fellow rookie Kelvin Beachum will be a big part of the action at right tackle.

Last Sunday, the two rookies started for the first time together and Tomlin said, "I thought they did a nice job. … But they've got a ridiculous challenge this week with Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap."

Beachum and DeCastro played well last Sunday but were victimized by all-out blitzes for two late and critical sacks against the Cowboys.

"They kind of got us on skates but we're going to bounce back," Beachum said. "We know Cincinnati's the king of the double barrel, so we know what to expect."

The double barrel?

"Where they have the DTs in 3-techniques and they stack the linebackers inside of those, and they run different picks and games and things of that sort."

So, what about DeCastro? He's taking a big step up from the Cowboys' Marcus Spears to Atkins.

"He's been doing great, man," said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. "I saw him all last game and he did an excellent job coming out for his first actual live battle like that. I think he and Geno are going to have a good time playing against each other."

Pouncey knows Atkins well. Not only have the two done battle in the same division since coming out of the SEC together in 2010, they played against each other in high school.

Atkins played with Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and they lost back-to-back Class 5-A state title games to Pouncey's Lakeland High.

"They were real good. They could recruit, too," Pouncey said with a laugh. "But Atkins was always a great player. His dad (Gene Atkins) was a great player for the Miami Dolphins. He's always had that strong streak, drives guys back, quickness to get up the field. He's just a great player. He has that leverage that any defensive tackle wants."

That's what Atkins showed in the Senior Bowl against the massive Iupati. Not that it helped his draft stock.

"Yeah but you know coming out it's a size thing," Pouncey said. "They saw his size and didn't know if he could hold up. But he worked his technique. He's so good at dropping the knee, getting down lower into the double teams, trying to split them by getting skinny. He done worked his butt off to get better. You can tell."

Not only does Atkins lead the Bengals in sacks, but also in QB pressures (33) and tackles-for-loss (13), well ahead of the respective runners-up Michael Johnson (24 pressures) and Vontaze Burfict (8 TFL).

"Yeah, he seems to set it all up for them," said Beachum. "But the thing is we as an offensive line communicate very well. And we talk about different things throughout the week. We know what to expect in the game, so we'll have to communicate – over-communicate in our case – just to make sure we're on the same page."

NOTES – CB Keenan Lewis missed practice Thursday after aggravating his hip flexor injury Wednesday, when he said he would still play Sunday. If he can't, it appears CB Cortez Allen is healthy. He returned to the practice field Thursday… OT Mike Adams was limited again in his return from a sprained ankle. … SS Troy Polamalu and CB Ike Taylor also missed Thursday's practice, but Polamalu expects to play Sunday. Taylor has been ruled out.

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