Geno Atkins has four sacks this season, including this one against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. (Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)
Allen Park — Entering his fourth season, many considered Geno Atkins to be the best defensive tackle in the NFL, using strength and impeccable technique to make up for his 6-foot-1 stature.
But when Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford played with Atkins at Georgia, Stafford said the Bengals star wasn’t technically sound in one aspect of his life.
“You just see him in the weight room, early on in his career just had awful technique,” Stafford said. “But (he) could lift all sorts of weight. You’re like, ‘How’s this guy doing it?’ ”
Stafford, meanwhile said his form was “perfect,” but when Atkins was asked about having worse lifting form than his college friend, he said, “Who Stafford? I doubt that.”
Friendship aside, the Lions face a tough task keeping Atkins out of Stafford’s face Sunday.
Since 2010, Atkins leads all defensive tackles with 27 sacks despite starting just one game his rookie season. That’s more than Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh (24.5) and Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy (11), who were the second and third overall picks in 2010.
Because he lacked the prototypical size, Atkins fell to the fourth round.
“I mean, Suh was a beast (his senior year at Nebraska),” Atkins said. “He was the best defensive player in the 2010 draft, so looking at that I can understand he went first (among defensive players).”
Of course, Atkins said it’s too early to tell who will end up being the best defensive tackle from that class.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said that after Suh and McCoy, team officials believed Atkins was the best interior rusher in the draft, noting his motor as an appealing quality.
“We kind of held our breath a little bit, and he lasted there,” Lewis said.
While both have had success early, Suh and Atkins impact the game with different styles.
Stafford said he sees some similarities because both command double teams and are effective against the run and pass.
“Both of them have the potential to wreck games up front,” Stafford said.
Suh said he’s paid attention to Atkins and has taken some things from his game.
“He’s definitely good with his hands,” Suh said. “He knows how to get into the body of an offensive lineman and move him back into the backfield.”
In his second season, Atkins moved into a starting role for the Bengals and had 7.5 sacks, six tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Last season, he moved into the top defensive tackle discussion with 12.5 sacks (Suh’s best is 10), five tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.
In six games this season, Atkins has four sacks and leads a Bengals defense that is ninth in passing (216 yards) and is tied for seventh in sacks (18).
Lions left guard Rob Sims first played against Atkins in an exhibition game in 2011, and while Sims didn’t know much about the second-year player, Atkins made an impression.
“I remember coming off like, ‘Man, that 97, that’s a good player,’ ” Sims said. “This is one we’d been thinking about in the offseason. We knew we had him coming up, so it’s going to be a test for me and (guard) Larry (Warford).”
The Lions offensive line has been one of the best in the NFL this season. Only the Broncos (five) have allowed fewer sacks than the Lions (nine), and five came in a Week 5 loss to the Packers.
While some defensive tackles rely on a bull rush and others use footwork to move past offensive linemen, Sims said Atkins can do it all. And although he’s shorter than most defensive tackles, Atkins uses his height as leverage when attacking, Sims said.
“After watching film on him, we can’t cheat anything with him,” Sims said. “You’ve got to play him head up just like we had to do last week with (Cleveland’s) Desmond Bryant and (Arizona’s) Calais Campbell.”