How D.J. Reader Makes Bengals a Postseason Threat
NFL Week 13 - The return of D.J. Reader could not have come at a better time. A one-man run-stopper in the middle of Cincinnati's defense, Reader went down in Week 3 with an MCL injury that put him out of commission for the following two months. The 6-foot-3, 335-pounder made his return to the lineup last week. This week, he captained the Bengals run defense against Derrick Henry and the Titans, an offense uniquely designed to test a team's big men in the middle. Reader rose to the challenge and led an effort that held Henry to 38 yards on 17 carries.
Before diving into the film, it's worth illustrating just how important Reader is to the Bengals. After Week 11, the Bengals ranked 16th in run defense DVOA, a perfectly average unit. That's nothing to panic over week to week, but it was their lowest-ranked unit of the major four, and one that quality rushing attacks—namely the Saints, Browns, and Ravens—had their way with when Reader was absent.
Reader changed that right away against the Titans. The Bengals had their best run defense DVOA performance of the season at -45.9%. The outing was good enough to bump the Bengals up to 15th in run defense on the season. On top of that, it was Tennessee's third-worst rushing DVOA performance this season, trailing only their Week 1 match versus the Giants and Week 10 game against the Broncos. The Bengals looked like a different unit, shutting down one of the league's most run-centric offenses all because Reader was back commanding the middle.
Unsurprising for a man of his size, Reader's primary value to the Bengals is taking up space to free up second-level defenders. Reader is a near-impossible man to move off his spot, and more often than not he is the one who gets the push on others. Combination blocks are a futile endeavor against Reader because they cannot get initial movement, and also because Reader excels at holding up offensive linemen so that they cannot climb to the second level. As a result, the Bengals' linebackers, mainly Germaine Pratt this go-around, regularly get free runs into the backfield so long as they trigger on time.
Reader is big No. 98 right over the center. The Titans are running outside zone into a multi-tight end side, a staple of their offense for years. Ideally, the center would be able to get a half step in front of the nose tackle, ride the block for a second, then pass it off to the guard while the center moves up to the linebacker (Pratt, 57). Reader doesn't let the center come off the block. Not only does Reader come off the ball well, he latches onto the center and starts to turn his torso, giving the center no chance to work to the linebacker. Reader's effort allows Pratt to squeeze through and force a cutback right into two more Bengals defenders.
In the fourth quarter, Reader and Pratt pulled off almost an identical play. Just like the previous clip, Reader flies off the ball and gives up zero ground when the center first hits him. He then controls the center's chest again, twisting and turning to make sure the center (Aaron Brewer, 55) cannot come off and get to Pratt. Reader's effort frees Pratt once again, leading to yet another successful run stop for the Bengals defense. Reader doesn't get credit in the box score for either play, but a nose tackle who can make space for others like that is what makes a run defense go.
Sometimes Reader does more than just hold the line. Every now and then, with a good jump on the snap, Reader can turn into an unstoppable force barreling into the backfield. It's hard to slow down a 335-pounder with Reader's explosiveness, especially when he's working with an arm length advantage over most interior offensive linemen to help keep them at bay.
The Titans are running outside zone again, but this time with a fullback leading the way. The fullback changes the gap count post-snap, which results in Pratt having to flow outside this time rather than knifing past Reader like before. In turn, the burden is left to Reader to take care of the A-gap by himself, and boy did he ever. Reader (98) again takes control of the center's chest, but this time does so with just his right arm, using his other shoulder to help pry himself between the two blockers while moving both of them 2 yards into the backfield. With some help from the play-side end, Cameron Sample (96) , the intended rush lane gets clogged entirely, forcing another cutback right into two free Bengals defenders.
All three plays highlight the value of having five defenders on the line of scrimmage versus zone running concepts, as well as the value of a nose tackle who can do more than his fair share. Getting five (or more) across the line of scrimmage strips an offense of the ability to get clean, effective double teams on zone runs. A nose tackle like Reader, who always takes ground rather than surrendering it, helps everything else fall in place and keeps linebackers clean to further clog up every possible rush lane.
Of course, Reader is more than a zone-stopper. The Titans tried a number of gap concepts, mostly counter, as a changeup to their usual zone style, but had no success with Reader in the way. Reader has the anchor and balance to hold his ground versus down blocks and vertical double teams, making it difficult for opposing offenses to crack open the tackle area most gap plays hit.
The entire Bengals run defense should get credit for this play. Defensive end Sam Hubbard (94), in particular, does a wonderful job slipping past Robert Woods (2) and using his inside arm to power his way through the first puller (Dillon Radunz, 75). Still, check out Reader at the 1-technique spot (between the guard and tackle). Reader gets wide in his stance when the guard (Nate Davis, 64) takes him on and firmly holds his ground through the initial push. Shortly thereafter, Reader finds a way to come to balance and retake control of the block, manhandling the guard while keeping his eyes and a free arm ready to pounce on Henry.
Reader did the same thing later in the game from the other side of the formation. The Titans are trying to run counter again, but the result is no different than the last clip. Reader (98) again holds his ground for a second before rebounding and taking control of the play. Between Reader's pushback on the guard and defensive end Joseph Ossai's (58) swift step down to take on the first puller, Tennessee's second puller couldn't get through the hole to lead the way, backing up the entire play for Mike Hilton (21) to come screaming in from the other side for a tackle for loss. Even without Hilton's warp-speed runthrough, this run would have been log-jammed and ended in little to no gain thanks to Reader's knockback on the guard.
The Bengals have obviously surrounded Reader with good, sound football players who can make their own plays, but few defensive tackles in the league have a singular presence like Reader. He is a facilitator, penetrator, and immovable object wrapped up in one. There's no trick or particular concept to beat him, you just have to be stronger than him on the day, and there are only so many men in the world built to do that for 60 minutes.
Above all, Reader inches the Bengals towards being a complete team on both sides of the ball. Run defense was their final frontier this season after their rushing offense started to surge over the past month or so. Reader and the run defense unit will not swing games to this degree every week, especially against more spread offenses, but it's another arrow in their quiver, another answer for the various flavors of teams scattered across the AFC playoff landscape. The closer the postseason approaches, the more important it is to be ready for anything. With Reader making his presence felt again, the Bengals are fast approaching the league's upper echelon with a team as complete and balanced as any.