Of the NFL's defensive tackles in 2008, Cleveland's Rogers, with 76, was the only one who had more tackles than Peko and his 67 in numbers that were compiled by press-box stats. After the Bengals coaches looked at film, they had Peko for 108 tackles.
"You don't hear a lot about him, but he's a quiet assassin," says Kyle Cook, the Bengals center. "He may not be those guys, but he's Domata Peko and he's a unique guy. He's athletic enough that he can get you leaning one way and then get past you the other way and he's still strong enough to be stout against the run."
Cook should know. Stretching back to their days at Michigan State, this is their fifth season going head-to-head, although they can't bang helmets officially this year until training camp starts. But the 6-3, 320-pound Peko has banged enough heads that people are starting to notice.
"He came up to me after one of the games, telling me I'm doing a good job and to keep it going," Peko says. "That gives me encouragement. I'd liked to get mentioned like those guys. I'm not looking for it, but if I keep working hard and show up on film, guys will know."
'09 NFL DEFENSIVE TACKLE LEADERS: Shaun Rogers, Browns 76; Domata Peko, Bengals 67; Vince Wilfork, Patriots 66; Kevin Williams, Vikings 60; Jamal Williams, Chargers 56.
Peko is the strong, silent type. He doesn't say much and then all of a sudden you look up and he's battling former teammate Justin Smith for the league's defensive line tackle title. (Smith, with 73, ended up third behind Rogers and leader Trent Cole of the Eagles among ends and tackles.)
The cry is for leadership, and suddenly Peko's home has become a spot to hit for people on the team, whether it's a center like Cook or a wide receiver like Chris Henry.
"The guy is more than an effective player; he's good," says Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "Things go right and we win some games, then people are going to be talking about him and that should be getting to just about now."
Peko is already crunching numbers. Not only would he like to pass Rogers this year and lead the league in tackles, but he'd like to get at least five sacks. A big number, considering he only had 0.5 last year and 4.5 in his three-year career.
But he knows where the bread is buttered. Albert Haynesworth and Kevin Williams led all defensive tackles with 8.5 sacks. And Peko feels like after an offseason Hayes and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer unveiled new pass-rush drills and a little bit more freedom to go for it, he figures the time is now. A player that doesn't turn 25 until November, Peko is still growing into the pro game.
The idea, Hayes says, is "to get him to understand how he can increase his pass rush. Just to know what he needs to do to be effective when the opportunity comes. Don't be down the middle. Get an edge on his man."
Because he works primarily on first and second downs, Peko is emphasizing sniffing out play-action passes.
"A lot of times last year we didn't even know it was a pass; we thought it was a run," he said. "But this year (Zimmer) told me if I ever think it's a pass on first and second down, I can have the freedom to just swim past the center real quick and get upfield. That's something he just told me to do whenever I want. It feels like there is (more freedom on the line). He's just telling us to get after it, man. Get after the quarterback. We want to get some sacks. That's where we struggled last year. We can't do that. We have to get after the quarterback. That's how you win games."
And if the Bengals win games, Peko knows what's next.
"I'm not looking for attention, but one of my goals is to go to a Pro Bowl," he says. "Whether it's in Hawaii, Florida, wherever. But you don't do that winning four games and we've got a good team here this year."
His instinct, though, is not to jazz it up. He's the son of a minister and the lessons have been constant. A year ago this week Peko reached one of the earliest extensions in Bengals history (right there with Chad Ochocinco and Andrew Whitworth in their third seasons) when he signed a five-year extension that can give him as much as $30 million with escalators in a top 10 deal at his position. On that day his mother invoked the rule again.
"He has kept the faith and he's never forsaken it," Sua Peko said. "Growing up in he church I think is 100 percent why things have happened for him the way they have. He always has to keep this in mind."
He's been true to the word and continues to be active in his Florence, Ky., church, Seven Hills Christian. A couple of weeks ago the members fanned out into the poorer sections of Cincinnati and Covington, Ky., with free clothes, toys and bibles, and offered food under tents.
"I tell them whatever they need, I'll help them do," he says.
Which is the way it's sounding on the pass rush these days.
D-TACKLES AT A GLANCE
Last year's starters: Domata Peko (fourth year), Pat Sims (2). Key free agent: Tank Johnson (6). Inexperienced vet: Jason Shirley (2). Rookies: Seventh-rounder Clinton McDonald (Memphis), free agent Pernell Phillips (Central State). Ends that can be tackles: Frostee Rucker, Jonathan Fanene.
Johnson is thought to be a leading candidate to be a passing-down tackle, a derby in which Hayes doesn't eliminate Peko.
"Has yet to be decided," he says. "The best rushers will be on the field."
Traditionally the Bengals have kept four tackles, which means it is a free-for-all after Peko, Sims and Johnson. Consider if they keep nine defensive linemen, they'd like No. 9 to be a swing end/linebacker.