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Bengals NT Josh Tupou Steps Up In New Role, But Can't Celebrate First NFL Sack With Concern For Tua

Josh Tupou (68) and B.J. Hill held down the front Thursday.
Josh Tupou (68) and B.J. Hill held down the front Thursday.

It's been a great and trying five days for one of the most veteran of Bengals. Nose tackle Josh Tupou, who has been here longer than any defensive player on the roster, was promoted to starter and secured his first NFL sack in two victories.

But they came at a terrible price.

His sack, as clean as a whistle, became an international headline Thursday night when Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's head bounced off the Paycor Stadium turf and the brain injury sent him to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center as even the most veteran NFL observers watched far and wide in horror.

"Mixed emotions," said Tupou Friday, the morning after the Bengals' 27-15 victory on Thursday Night Football. "I was excited to get my first sack, but at the same time it's tainted because I didn't want to hurt Tua. I never intended to hurt him.

"I was just trying to make a rolling tackle and his head hit the ground. I don't know him. I just know he's another Polynesian brother. I never want to hurt anybody in the NFL."

Last Sunday in New York when starting nose tackle D.J. Reader went down with a serious knee injury in the first half to derail a Pro Bowl season, Tupou came off the bench to finish the game and then started for the 20th time in his 44-game career Thursday night. He played a career-high 64 percent of the snaps as part of a defense that has allowed just one touchdown in the last 11 quarters.

"When D.J. hurt, I hurt," Tupou said. "I'm close to him. Since he's been here (2020) he's made me a better player, helping every day with different technique. I know how much it meant for him this year. The work he put into it to be a captain. He was dominant before he got hurt."

It's so unfortunate that people are finding out about the 6-3, 340-pound Tupou this way. He's 28 and climbed from college free agency, the practice squad and the pandemic. Health reasons and wanting to spend more time with his family in California were reasons for his 2020 opt-out. He also got closer to getting his communications degree from Colorado in on-line courses.

He returned last season to be a key contributor with 410 snaps on an AFC championship defense that ranked fifth against the run last year and is holding teams to 3.8 yards per this season. Pro scouting director Steven Radicevic, who scouted him out of Colorado, calls him "DJ Tupou."

"I love how he plays. He makes my job easier," said starting three technique B.J. Hill. "When he's in the game, I'm confident in him. I know he's going to do his job. I was so happy for him for his first sack."

Also getting increased time is third-rounder Zach Carter, who has been coached up well by defensive line coach Marion Hobby after coming in primarily known as a pass rusher.

"You can't replicate the impact of (Reader) on a game," Tupou said. "It's more a group effort by me and some of the young guys until he comes back. Zach has played well. He's a strong kid. He's smart. When the lights are on he doesn't shy away from it.

"I think he's going to be a great player. He's young, but he'll get more time now and that's good. He'll have experience. Coach Hobby does a good job teaching him on technique as far as the running game and he's getting better."

Tupou is one of six players still left on the active roster who played for both Taylor and head coach Marvin Lewis: Tupou, Bates, Hubbard, punter Kevin Huber, wide receiver Tyler Boyd, running back Joe Mixon. And he's not always the strong, silent type, according to Taylor.

"I think it depends on the environment. He's a fan favorite over there in the weight room, in the coffee shop of Joey's (Boese) office, "Taylor said. "He's around a lot. He's one of those guys that's just feel like I always see him in the building in the offseason and in the weight room just hanging out. You like those guys that like to hang out with the staff. Josh has done a good job for us.

"He's really earned his way here. He's one of the few guys still here that was here in 2018 or earlier. On defense, it's him Sam Hubbard, Jessie and Brandon Wilson (IR) I think is it. That speaks to who he is and his work ethic and reliability and consistency to step up when his number is called. Got a lot of love for Josh. He always comes through for us and is a big part of what we do in that d-line rotation."

It's pretty much what Radicevic saw when he scouted the West during the draft. Tupou was undrafted, but he had the pro traits of an NFL nose tackle. Basically a land mass that had hard time being shifted by foes.

"How he played the run stood out," Radicevic said. "Stout. Did a good job on special teams. A high motor guy that puts his head down and grinds it out. Physical. He's close with those guys down there. And I think he's loyal to us (two-year deal last March) because he's appreciative we took a shot on him."

It's a two-way street.

The sack was huge only because it came after the offense's ugly three-and-out couldn't add to a 7-6 lead and with 5:15 left in the first half on second-and-seven from the Bengals 40, the 10-yard sack changed the momentum. The stunning injury to Tua aside.

If there's a moment to be savored this off weekend, it's going to be tempered.

"All that's fine, but his health is more important than anything on the field," Tupou said.

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