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Matchup Of The Game: DJ Reader And Bengals Roaring '20s Run Defense Look To Make A Stand

As usual, DJ Reader was in the middle of it all Sunday.
As usual, DJ Reader was in the middle of it all Sunday.


The bigger the game the more piles around the locker of David Vernon Reader, the man who has stiffened the spine against the run in these last two Bengals playoff runs. Be assured playbooks, game plans, sweats, cruise ship-sized shower shoes and a voracious commitment to defend the AFC North are strewn about for Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium against his old teammate Deshaun Watson, the Browns' elite guards and estimable running game that has solved the Bengals the last five times out.

"They've got two Pro Bowl offensive linemen. I get a chance to play against guys and it's not an accomplishment I've made yet," Reader says. "I'm still looking for a little bit more respect around the league. So always preparing hard and being ready to go."

He may not have a Pro Bowl, but he does in his locker room, where the respect is thick and genuine. From the locker next to him and defensive end Sam Hubbard, a guy that was on the defense that gave up four 200-yard rush games the year before Reader arrived.

"Best nose tackle in the league," Hubbard says. "Can't block him. Impossible to reach."

To all the way across the locker room and free safety Jessie Bates III, the other guy left from that defense that finished last in the league against the run.

"You've got a guy who can relate to everybody. He's not talking about it. He's being about it every single time," Bates says. "Complete locker room guy. He's been on the baseball team. He's been on the football team. People love him. He can relate with a lot of people. A lot of people can't do that. He's a house type of guy. He takes pride in everything he does. As a leader, as a captain, that's someone to look to. That's the guy."

Reader says he doesn't know what the Bengals numbers are against the run when he's in the lineup and when he's not in the lineup. The Athletic's Jay Morrison, the Stats Masterson of the Bengals beat, tells him, "Very significant."

Since Reader became their first free-agent signing of the decade, he has not played in five of the six biggest run  days against the Bengals in the 2020s. When he missed the last 11 games of the 2020 season with a torn quad, they finished 29th against the run and gave up 112 yards to Tennessee's Derrick Henry. The next year when he played all but two games they finished fifth against the run and in the playoffs held Henry to 62 yards. When he missed six games with a knee injury this season, the Bengals gave up their three biggest games of the year and in his second game back they stoned Henry on 38 yards on the last Sunday of November to get back into the AFC playoff chase for good.

"He was just getting back," says one Bengals defensive coach, "but they knew he was there."

"That's why I want to be out there playing," Reader says. "It's all about getting dubs. We need to get this one. We want to win the North and we've got to get this one."

The only team that has more rushing yards than Cleveland in the 2020s is Baltimore and the only two with more attempts are those Ravens and Tennessee. The Browns are 4-0 against Joe Burrow and the script is the same. There's an early turnover, the Browns get ahead and they pound it.

"They've been able to do what they want to do," Bates says.

With Reader out on Halloween the Browns banged it 44 times for 172 yards. At Paycor last season they averaged 6.7 yards per 23 carries. Browns running back Nick Chubb, who has the fourth most yards in the decade, has two of the four top running games against the Bengals in the '20s.

"The back and the offensive linemen," says Reader of what makes the Cleveland ground game go. "He's one of the best backs we've seen. He might be the best in the league. He's up there. Just his contact balance, the way he runs, how he runs through the gap. The O-line does a good job of locating, blocking well together as a team. It kind of makes the run game difficult and they're committed to it. A lot of teams aren't committed to the run. Stop them a few times and they won't do it. They're committed to it."

The Bengals are committed to stopping it like they were back in the day (they were in the top 10 when they won the North in 2013 and 2015), but they haven't had a dominant nose tackle like Reader since the Tim Krumrie days in the '80s and early '90s.

"The best in the league. Stamp it," says B.J. Hill, quietly the stoutest three technique in the league. "The way he recognizes blocks. The way he plays blocks. You have to have that mean streak. In our room, we want to stop the run because you have to to rush the passer. It's in the DNA. It's being in the league and knowing what you've got to do to win games."

Versatile edge Cam Sample, who broke in with the Reader Bengals as a fourth-rounder in 2021, has known no other way.

"He's one of the heart beats of our line. A tone-setter," Sample says. "He starts it off for us in the middle. Just the way he goes about his business every day. He puts his head down and works and you see it in the results of the game."

Sample thinks they're getting even better against the run. Also not playing in Cleveland back in October was Reader's backup Josh Tupou. But he's in his second game back from a calf injury.

"As a defensive lineman, it's a point of emphasis for us, stopping the run," Sample says. "It just embodies that mindset for making a team one dimensional. You see (Reader and Tupou) on the film and see those guys taking on double teams, splitting them, and coming off and making plays, it's impressive as hell. They do a great job. They're solid in there."

The one big run game that Reader played in was the second game he was here, Burrow's second start in front of an empty house in Cleveland and a national Thursday night audience that saw the Browns run for 215 yards in a 34-30 win. That seems to be as long ago as, well, 2020.

"It was a long game. Dragged out. It was rough giving up those yards but we've come a long way since then," Reader says. "Just understanding how to play the run. When we showed up, guys didn't necessarily understand how to play the run, what all went into it. It's eleven guys fighting for one job, especially in the run game."

It's been more than just Reader, of course. A few days after Reader signed, one of the league's best strong safeties joined him in Vonn Bell. A month later they took a linebacker in the third round for the second straight year when Logan Wilson joined Germaine Pratt. In the last five years, no defensive end is close in combined tackles to Hubbard.

But they needed a guy in the middle to put it together.

"When Germaine and Logan get freed up," Bates says, "they're animals. DJ is a big part of that."

Reader: "They've gotten older. The picture is clearer for them. They watch a lot of film."

Reader says the biggest thing the Bengals have improved on against the run is patience.

"You've got time. You don't have to beat every block immediately," Reader says. "Everybody is working toward one job, so you don't have to get off and jump around blocks. You've got time to still feel it out."

Teller also didn't play Halloween, but Reader isn't delving into that. "It's always good to play one of the best offensive guards. I don't like to talk about offensive linemen, he's one of the best though."

He will talk about Watson, the Browns new quarterback and his old Texans teammate who led him to the playoffs. He remembers his first NFL start and how it was here at Paycor and they beat the Bengals in a defensive war, 13-9, and Watson scored the only touchdown on a 49-yard third-and-15 scramble on his 22nd birthday.

"Hopefully a couple of more weeks," says Reader, when asked how long it's going to take Watson to knock off the rust after not generating a touchdown in his Cleveland debut last week. "That's my brother. I've been through some battles with that guy. I saw him grow up, I know what he comes from, I know what cloth he's cut from. I just want to see him do well. But we've got to get him on Sunday."

Then he turned around to get his week started in front of his busy locker as big as the game.