Cincinnati Bengals: Without Geno Atkins, can Mike Zimmer keep defense stitched together?

Several top players sidelined by injuries

CINCINNATI -- Geno Atkins was in the Bengals' locker room briefly Wednesday, moving slowly on crutches. He declined to answer questions about his torn knee ligament as he headed for a side door and home.

It's still too painful to discuss.

Still a bit painful for the teammates who will miss him, too.

The Bengals (6-3) will try to maintain their lead in the AFC North without their best defensive lineman. Atkins, an All-Pro tackle last season, leads the team with six sacks and is a disruptive force up the middle that Cincinnati already misses badly.

"A friend," defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "A hell of a teammate. Hell of an athlete. I could go on for days."

They don't have that much time. The Bengals have a chance to all but clinch their division in the next two weeks when they play at Baltimore (3-5) and host Cleveland (4-5). Back-to-back wins would leave them with a daunting lead heading down the stretch.

The Bengals reached the playoffs as a wild card each of the last two seasons. They haven't won the division title since 2009.

 "Honestly we feel like these next two weeks are the biggest of the season because of where we are in the division," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We get an opportunity. These games can tilt things one way or the other."

Their biggest challenge is filling holes on a defense that has lost some of its best players in the last three weeks.

Top cornerback Leon Hall is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga missed a 22-20 overtime loss in Miami last Thursday with a concussion and an injured left knee.

Atkins tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the first half of the loss at Miami, a significant setback to a line already missing end Robert Geathers for the season.

"You can hear the rumbles of respect that our guys have for him," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said during a conference call on Wednesday. "I can imagine that it's going to be a little different in there just because he is such a good player."

The Bengals signed defensive tackle Kheeston Randall to fill Atkins' roster spot on Tuesday. Randall was the Dolphins' seventh-round pick last year and played in 12 games. He was waived by Miami on Aug. 31.

They'll work others into the middle of the line rotation as well. Tackle Brandon Thompson, a second-year player from Clemson, will get much more time in Atkins' spot. Thompson played in only three games last season but has played in all nine this year.

"I think it was very beneficial to just be able to sit back and learn from those great defensive linemen we have, just to sit back and take a whole year and soak everything in," Thompson said. "I was a sponge last year. I learned so much. I just thank those guys for that."

The Bengals had fewer injuries than average in the opening weeks, but have been hit hard lately. With the injuries piling up, coach Marvin Lewis showed his team some statistics about Super Bowl champions overcoming injuries.

"You look at the last four or five Super Bowl champions and the amount of people that went on (injured reserve), and they've overcome it," Lewis said. "You look at those teams, and those teams put double-digit numbers of players on injured reserve.

"And their leadership of the team, the maturity of the team, it all plays out."

Coordinator Mike Zimmer has a reputation for being able to plug newcomers into the defense quickly without having the overall performance suffer.

"I guess that's his calling card," safety Chris Crocker said. "He can put in other guys and have them play together and find a way to win. The biggest part is putting somebody in there who knows what to do.

"Everybody's athletically gifted and talented. But at this point in the season when you bring in somebody new, you just have to be up to speed on what to do. If you get them to do that, that's 60 to 70 percent of the battle. We'll be fine."

Notes: Whitworth, Maualuga and defensive lineman Devon Still (elbow) didn't practice on Wednesday. Whitworth missed the Miami game with a sore right knee. ... RB Giovani Bernard (bruised ribs), LB Mike Boley (hamstring), TE Jermaine Gresham (groin) and guard Kevin Zeitler (hamstring) were limited in practice.

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