Sunday, September 11, 2011

Man in the middle


Domata Peko

If coordinator Mike Zimmer lends the Bengals defense fire and unflappable cornerback Leon Hall offers ice, then defensive tackle Domata Peko gives it an island breeze.

His relentless play and bottomless generosity have been soothing to veterans and youngsters alike in this season of transition in Bengaldom. At just 26 and already heading into his sixth season, Peko looks poised for a big year now that his knee feels like it did before he injured it down the stretch in 2009.

“Last year was the first time back from injury and it was kind of unsettling,” says Peko, preparing for Thursday’s 7 p.m. preseason finale against the Colts (11:35 p.m. – Cincinnati’s Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium.

“But now I feel like I never had an injury. I don’t know if I was just feeling my way or what, but now I feel like it's back to normal.”

Even before Peko did a number on estimable Panthers center Ryan Kalil in last Thursday’s game, his value to the Bengals was incalculable. He led the lockout workouts at Ignition Sports in the Cincinnati suburb of Mason, Ohio, of about 30 players and while left tackle Andrew Whitworth led the offense Peko channeled his best Zimmer complete with scripts and clipboard during the two weeks the players were on the field in June.

“He’s been a team leader; obviously he didn’t disappoint anyone in this offseason,” says head coach Marvin Lewis.

The lockout not only brought out the best in Peko, but he thinks it was the best thing for his knee. Peko underwent arthroscopic knee surgery for a ligament problem after the 11th game of the ’09 season and he was back in a month for the wild card game against the Jets.

“I was there in March up at Ignition and I think that was the key,” Peko says. “All that hard work I did in the offseason got my legs back.”

Peko‘s revived knee has held up against the best early. As he worked against Jets Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold 10 days ago, the Bengals first defense held the elite Jets running game to 16 rushing yards on 11 carries. Then against Kalil, Peko led the line’s consistent penetration against flustered rookie quarterback Cam Newton while the Bengals held the dangerous Panthers backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to 15 yards on eight carries in the first half after Williams’ 18-yard run on his first carry.

But it is Peko's work collapsing the pocket against the pass that has Lewis excited with Peko now rotating between both tackle spots, the nose and three technique.

“He’s doing well at both,” Lewis says. “You know he’s going to play very good in the run game. I think the thing he’s doing is making a big transition in the pass game and really becoming a very effective inside rusher so far this preseason.”

A fourth-round pick in 2006, the 6-3, 320-pound Peko doesn’t have the strength of a Ndamukong Suh or the quickness of a Tommie Harris or the size of a Shaun Rogers. But he shoehorns it all into a solid package with attitude as he looks to take it up a notch past the second alternate Pro Bowl berth he earned in ’09.

Defensive lineman Frostee Rucker knows Peko's formula: “Just his tenacity to stop the run. You can see how hard he works. He works his tail off. That’s how he does it; with hard work.”

Peko says Zimmer has been stressing hand placement on pass moves in this back-to-basics season, but he’s also made a statement against the run. And, as usual, Peko is making sure he shares the wealth. He says Rey Maualuga’s move to middle linebacker has boosted the run game.

“It has come down to everyone putting our foot down,” Peko says. “Coach Zimmer has been talking about being real stout against the run. This year we’ve taken it to heart, especially with Rey moving to middle linebacker. A lot of holes are being filled.”

Peko notices. He also noticed before the Bengals played the Panthers that Kalil, as he understands it, is the highest paid center in the league.

“He’s not one of the biggest in the league, but he’s a good one,” Peko says. “You want to do it against the best. So we’ve had Mangold, Kalil and now we get (Colts center) Jeff Saturday this week.”

Maybe not, since the Colts famously never play any of their starters in their last preseason game, which has been against the Bengals the last eight years.

But starter or backup, the door of Peko’s Northern Kentucky home is always open. During the lockout he made sure he made things easier for the young players with food and lodging.

“Been there many times. You can watch film, play video games, or just hang out with his family," says Rucker, who arrived in that same 2006 draft. “He’s a great guy to have on the team. A leader. A captain. I know it was a good thing for me that I came in with him. He had a family. His little one is a big boy now (first grade). Same age as me and I saw how you’re supposed to do it.”

Peko was down Tuesday. He was missing backup defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, dealt to Seattle on Monday for cornerback Kelly Jennings.

“He’s like another one of my brothers,” Peko says. “I feel like I brought him up and taught him everything I know. A really good dude. You hate to see a guy like that go. You hope you did enough for him and that it’s going to help him wherever he goes.”

But he perked up when told Jennings has a good-guy rep like McDonald.

“We’re ready to go up front,” Peko says. “We’ve been together for a few years. We’re trying to pick up where we left off last year. We’ve got some chemistry and we know how to play off each other.”

Feel the breeze.

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