Skip to main content

Quick Hits: Hayden Hurst Chasing TE Records And Greats; How DJ Reader Changed Bengals Culture Vs. The Run

Hayden Hurst making yards after the catch.
Hayden Hurst making yards after the catch.

The topic is Hayden Hurst after last Sunday's six catches kept him on pace with an ancient Bengals tight ends receiving record and currently kept him within one of the great Travis Kelce's 18 third-down catches that lead all NFL tight ends.

But that's not the first thing that comes to the mind of tight ends coach James Casey.

"Did you see that block?" asks Casey of Hurst's semi-viral mash of Titans edge Bud Dupree on a run in the 20-16 victory.

All three tight ends, who played at least 14 snaps in a tight game for the first time since the Sept. 29 win over Miami, blocked like that in Nashville as the Bengals pounded out 108 yards and kept the ball for 31:46 against the NFL's second best run defense.

(Check out running back Samaje Perine's seven-yard touchdown run as tight end Mitchell Wilcox seals off linebacker Dylan Cole and extra tackle Hakeem Adeniji backs up safety Kevin Byard into the end zone.)

But Hurst also added his longest catch as a Bengal with a 29-yard fingertip grab on a seamless Joe Burrow seam ball and later added his 17th catch on third down in what is shaping up as one of the most productive seasons by a Cincinnati tight end in this century.

"The tight end position, in general, you're not going to be given just a bunch of opportunities in the passing game unless you're a top pick or Travis Kelce or a guy like Zach Ertz," said Casey, who had 72 catches in seven NFL seasons.

"Other than that, you're doing a lot of dirty work and you're an entrusted underneath receiver for the quarterback. They're playing zone and you're in the void where the ball should go to, you've got a great quarterback that can get it to you. I think Hayden is doing a great job just getting Burrow more and more comfortable with him and gaining more and more trust in him."

Hurst has the benefit of an extra game, but with 46 catches he's on pace to tie Dan Ross' club record for catches by a tight end with 71 set in the first Super Bowl season of 1981. With 388 yards, he's on pace to hit 600, the most by a Bengals tight end since Tyler Eifert's 2015 Pro Bowl season. Only Eifert and Jermaine Gresham have hit the number in this century with Gresham's 737 in 2012 leading the way.

He may have just 8.4 yards per catch, but Burrow views all of those 8.4 as precious. That's good enough to convert a third down or put you close on first and second down. According to Pro Football Focus, Hurst has just one drop and his 17 catches on third down are second only to Kelce.

"You see over and over he catches the ball short and gets seven yards, and that's so key to have as a tight end," Burrow said after the game. "You have to get us those extra dirty yards and that is what he does so well."

They'll both be here Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when Kelce brings his 9-2 Chiefs to Paycor Stadium. Kelce, a familiar face as a former University of Cincinnati all-timer and the greatest tight end of his generation, makes a sort of Homecoming. Hurst, on his third team, now calls this home.

"Hurst has been doing a great job of being where he needs to be. And he's a fast guy, athletic guy," Casey says of the former first-round pick. "He runs after the catch well. Consistently being in that right spot, you never know. We have great receivers that are open. Never get frustrated. Just keep running routes. And when Burrow does need you with however the coverage dictates it, then you always are trusted to get those catches.

"I don't think it's planned. Every now and then there are plays intended for Hayden, but a lot of times we're calling plays that are good plays and Burrow is just getting the ball where he needs to get it. If he keeps doing his job, hopefully he'll more and more opportunities."

More would put him even past Danny Ross pace. The next prolific Bengals tight end season is Gresham in that 2012 season with 64 catches.

DJ DYNAMO: The Bengals made Joe Burrow their first draft pick of the 2020s. They made DJ Reader their first free-agent signing of the decade and gave him the biggest free-agent deal in club history as well as the biggest nose tackle contract in the league. That has also has paid rich dividends, as reflected in last Sunday's win in Tennessee.

In that 2019 season, they gave up four 200-yard rush games and were last in NFL rushing. That all stopped when Reader arrived. He was joined a day later by strong safety Vonn Bell and rookie middle linebacker Logan Wilson a month later in the draft. The next year in free agency brought willing tackling cornerbacks in Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple and they finished fifth in rushing and now head into the Kansas City game off stuffing NFL leading rusher Derrick Henry on 38 yards at 2.2 per lug.

It all began with Reader. When he's played, they've allowed 200 yards on the ground once and that was in the second game he was here. The most one back has dented them is 137 yards and that was by Cleveland's Nick Chubb more than a year ago. Five of the six biggest running back games against the Bengals in the '20s have come with Reader injured.

"Guys have bought in," said Reader, after they stoned Tennessee's No. 2 red zone offense on field goals on all three trips. "I think when I got here people didn't know how to stop the run. They didn't understand what it took to stop the run. It takes all 11 players and guys bought into doing their job on the early downs. After that, you start to play and understand things."

Guys like Hilton, the ultimate scrappy slot cornerback who bedeviled Henry all day at the line of scrimmage.

"Oh man," Reader said. "He's always cutting things down in there. Just a good player. A really solid guy. Works hard. I'm glad he's on my team and not nagging around (so (I'm) yelling, 'who's that No. 21 on that team?'"

Bell also likes the way Reader fires out some talking when needed. Like after one play Sunday when Henry asked, "Who are you?" And Reader said, "You know who I am."

"Man, it's just playing behind him makes everything easier," Bell said. "Then you got guys like Mike Hilton at the nickel position. You got corners now that go up there and tackle. It [mentality] plays a huge role. You got backers flowing. You got (Germaine Pratt) and Logan flowing. You've got a lot of guys that incorporate into it, it's not just us. It's a whole collective unit and you just have that mentality like we draw a line in the sand here it's not going to be done. Guys just going up there setting the edge, just want to make plays for each other. It's really a collective unit thing and it's just a mentality."

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who went from embattled to empowered as a rising head coaching candidate once Reader settled in, knows the impact of Reader better than most. Anarumo, displaying his easy manner that makes him popular in the locker room, had to comment on Reader's first two tipped passes in two years.

"DJ wants to be moved to linebacker after all his PBUs yesterday,"Anarumo said. "I told him maybe safety. But he's tremendous up front as he still continues to get healthy. As I said when he went down, it's hard to replace that guys. His impact is felt immediately.

SLANTS AND SCREENS: Anarumo got a head coaching job interview with the hometown Giants a few week after he confounded Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes by dropping eight men into coverage in the second half of the AFC title game.

But don't look for it again.

"On all these great quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees and Tom Brady and this guy Mahomes, you can't just keep giving them the same pitch,

"Anarumo said. "You have to try and keep him off-balance at the plate if you want to look at it as a baseball analogy. Because if they see fastball and get fastball, it's going a long way. You have to try and keep them off-balance as best you can.

"Certain coverages, helping guys underneath as well as having a spy on the guy and doing things like that. This year will be different for sure. How different, we'll see." …

Since the Bengals held the Chiefs to two field goals in the second half that day in Kansas City, the Chiefs are leading the league in points and yards. The Bengals also didn't allow a touchdown in the second half of the regular season win.

"Want me to knock on wood here?" Anarumo asked. "We seem to settle into these games and know what the approach is of the other team. You know it's going to be such great situational awareness this week. Tennessee was (No. 2) in the red zone coming into the game and we made them kick three field goals. It will be no different this week. Third down. Red zone. Make them kick field goals. Easier said than done, but that's the goal." …

The man who dialed up the play that put the Bengals back into a share of first place in the AFC North just happens to share Taylor's name. Jags offensive coordinator Press Taylor, Zac's brother, helped knock off the Ravens with a late two-point conversion.

Zac was thinking about him as much as first place, if not more, as his players watched it on TV in the visitors' locker room.

"I was Face-Timing my parents after the game," Zac Taylor said. "I couldn't see the game. I was in my own locker room. You can just picture it, they were showing me the game on FaceTime. I was watching the game through FaceTime. It must have been delayed because I heard the roar from the locker room way before the last touchdown. I was probably a little more locked in more so because it was Jacksonville than anything else. That is always the first score that I check to see how that household is going to be the following week. Fortunately for him he did a good job." …