David J. Reader goes by DJ and this week he said he prefers no periods next to the D and the J. But there has been no abbreviation for what he has meant to this rise of the Bengals in the 2020s.
He was their first major move of the decade, six weeks before they drafted Joe Burrow in the week COVID shut down Paul Brown Stadium and the country. Every Super Bowl starter on defense but left end Sam Hubbard, free safety Jessie Bates III and linebacker Germaine Pratt joined him. They're all back and looking back on it now, he's asked if this is the best defense nobody knows.
"I would probably say that. Best defense nobody knows," agrees Reader, back at PBS for the voluntary workouts. "We find a way to get the job done. We don't have the most sacks, but we don't have the fewest. We're not that highly rated in picks, but we don't have the lowest, either. But we're one of the winningest in those categories. We play good red zone defense, which shows you when our backs are against the wall we're playing. That's all you can ask for. It's cool to get down there, but you have to get in."
A few days later in March of 2020, strong safety Vonn Bell followed Reader in free agency. The seven-player Burrow Draft brought four defenders, three of them linebackers led by middle linebacker Logan Wilson. Then the next March came record-breaking sacker Trey Hendrickson and starting cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and Eli Apple.
Pick out your playoff hero.
Wilson grabbed the last-minute pick in the AFC Divisional after Hilton got one earlier. After Apple spun down Tyreek Hill short of the goal-line at the first half gun in Kansas City, Bell and Bates conspired for an overtime interception that led to the AFC title. Awuzie had a Super Bowl interception on a night Hendrickson had a sack, Bates had a pick and Reader had another big game.
Just like they did in March of 2020, they were all following Reader, arguably the best nose tackle in the league plugging the NFL's most porous run defense when he arrived. Now there may be no argument after a postseason he manhandled people (look at the Titans game and what he did to left guard Roger Saffold) and after a Super Bowl the Bengals held the Rams below two yards per attempt rushing.
"That was hard to swallow," Reader says. "We won the turnover battle, two to nothing, and you hold them like that, usually you win."
But there was something won that night in Los Angeles.
"I was really proud of the guys. Our team," Reader says. "The young guys we have in that room going about their job with the older guys, leaving behind a legacy. How much they care, how much they put in and you saw how much they got out of it."
Reader thinks about being that first piece in that legacy and quickly changes the subject to everybody else, which tells you something, too.
"It's awesome having those guys around. I believe in them and they believe in me," Reader says. "I'm blessed to be around this group of guys. We've got a lot of leaders. The Vonns, the Jessies, the Mike Hiltons. Sam. Trey. Everybody brings something different. We've got a young group of linebackers who are feisty as hell. It's fun to be around."
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's scheme is known as a sleek hybrid, but they win with an almost blue-collar anonymity that mirrors Reader's approach to the game in the middle.
"We've got a lot of guys that can play man, they can play zone. We don't give up much in space. We don't give up a lot of YAC yards as a team," Reader says. "That's extra inches, extra yards, things we focus on.
"We might get beat, but it's tackling. Getting them on the ground. Don't let that five-yard play be 20. Eliminate the big play and the game will play out better for you. That's how we play. We preach it in practice."
And this defense gets more than a good look in practice against wide receivers Tyler Boyd, Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins.
"Look at our offense. Those guys area amazing. We know things are going to happen," Reader says. "Say Tee, Ja'Marr, Tyler catch a ball, you try to punch it and strip him. Try to get them within two yards. It's knocking down the stiff arm after a gain of eight instead of a gain 25. Those are the things that matter. They come up big in practice."
Reader is a big fan of Bates and Bates has openly talked of how Reader helped him last season as he negotiated a contract year. The nose tackle always starts with the middle men.
"The first line of defense, you have to be good throughout the middle," Reader says. "Logan and I are real vocal together. Jessie, Vonn. I talk to those guys a lot in between the game. You have to be tough in the middle. That's what the team needs. The other guys are great and needed. But you've got to be strong in that middle or it just messes with your team. We talk all the (on the field.)"
When Reader came into the PBS media room Tuesday to talk, he was pretty sure it was his first time in there as Bengal. Certainly in the spring time and there was a lot to be said:
On the arrival of former Texans teammate Deshaun Watson to quarterback the Browns:
"They got a lot better, he's a really good player. He was like Michael Jordan that one time. That's my brother. I love Deshaun. He has made some special memories for me as a player watching him. Being on the other side, I've been blessed to play with some good quarterbacks as of late."
On the prospect of the Bengals appearing in a bunch of primetime games when the 2022 NFL schedule is released Thursday:
"You got to show up for primetime. If you're not excited for that, c'mon man, what are you playing for? It's primetime games, it'll be amazing. The world is on notice. We're not going to be picked to finish last in our division after we won it next time. Everybody will be on notice, and we'll play. A lot of people are ready to play in that primetime slot. We're a fun team, a lot of guys are having fun out there. A lot of scoring going on, big plays made, we enjoy that."
On a training camp with new faces on the offensive line:
"I'm not really looking forward to being a 3 technique and La'el (Collins) coming down on that double team and pushing my hip or anything like that. But there's a couple things I'm looking forward to. So I'm excited to get out there and compete."
But it always comes back to the way this team plays, which is a lot like how the guy who came here two years ago plays. The man who says the defense goes through the middle says the rest of the AFC North has to come through Cincinnati to get it because that's where it is.
"We still got the chip. It's not like there's a lot of respect out there," Reader said. "Just that's the nature of these guys and this city and having guys that push us every day. Everything about this team makes you have a chip on your shoulder and want to be blue collar and go out there and earn it. That's what we embody."