At times, Geno Atkins was 'just a guy out there'

CINCINNATI -- Defensive tackle Geno Atkins' salary commanded 7.15 percent of the Cincinnati Bengals' cap this season.

That was the second-highest cap percentage on the team behind quarterback Andy Dalton. His recent six-year contract extension, worth up to $115 million, made him command 7.2 percent of the team's 2014 cap, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Clearly, Atkins wasn't being paid this season to be an ordinary, middle-of-the-roster player.

Yet that's exactly the type of player he appeared to be at times this season in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's eyes.

"This year, he was just three-technique No. 20, in my mind," Guenther said. "He was just a guy out there."

One year removed from the extension that will earn him $55 million by 2018, Atkins hasn't played like the pass-rusher that earned the massive contract. Neither has fellow well-paid lineman Carlos Dunlap, for that matter. The two combined for 11.5 sacks in 17 games this season, including Sunday's 26-10 playoff loss at Indianapolis. In 2012, the season that practically earned both their respective massive contract extensions, they combined for 18 sacks in 17 games.

"I always tell them our best players have to play good in these big games," Guenther said. "All the time. It can't be sometimes. It's got to be all the time. If our best players don't play good then there is a big chance we are not going to play good."

Against the Colts on Sunday, Atkins had three tackles and a half sack. His lone partial takedown of Andrew Luck came when Bengals defensive end Margus Hunt pushed past his blocker and forced the quarterback into his hands and, consequently, Atkins'.

Atkins is also now a year and two months removed from the ACL tear he suffered in a Thursday night game at Miami. After surgery, he spent all offseason rehabbing the injured knee and slowly eased his way back into practicing at the tail end of training camp. He appeared to be somewhat limited and a little timid as he took on blockers at the beginning of the season.

It really wasn't until Week 8 when he started showing flashes of his old self before the injury.

"He didn't have the explosion he had in the past," Guenther said. "When you start seeing that, you've got to make a decision as a coordinator. Can you do this with four guys or do you have to do this somewhere else?"

The old Atkins, the one that had 12.5 sacks in 2012 and 7.5 the year before, was a Pro Bowl player.

Guenther is desperate to get him back.

"We need to get him back to where he was, being that game-wrecker there inside," Guenther said. "Otherwise, we need to go find a new inside rusher."

Any decision to release Atkins would come from somebody well beyond Guenther. Financially speaking, it's not likely. The Bengals won't get a cap savings for letting go of Atkins until after the 2015 season.