BENGALS NT D.J. READER, SS VONN BELL VS. 49ERS HC KYLE SHANAHAN
When the Bengals began rebuilding their tattered run defense in the 2020 offseason by giving Reader and Bell two of their biggest free-agent deals ever, the Paul Brown Stadium 2019 opener that served as the first home game for head coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo against Shanahan's crafty run scheme was very much on their minds.
After all, they were just a few weeks removed from watching Shanahan's scheme revive a 4-12 team the year before by bludgeoning the 49ers to the Super Bowl before losing to Chiefs' Superman Patrick Mahomes.
"I'm sure they ran the ball, right?" Reader asked before Thursday's practice.
Ran the ball? The 49ers left their calling card with 259 rushing yards in a 41-17 victory that began two hard seasons defending the run for the Bengals when they allowed the most rush yards in the league. But they hope to come full circle Sunday at PBS (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) with a run defense that is actually ranked higher (fourth) than the Niners run game (seventh).
"It's night and day from three years ago," Taylor said of his defense then and now. "A long ways. Just familiarity with our scheme. I think our coaching staff continued to get better in all phases of our team. I think our players have continued to grow their confidence in the scheme. We've added players."
But so have the Niners. Not just as many.
"Kyle's just got such a long history of this scheme and evolving it probably over 15 years," Taylor said. "Essentially, he's found a really good way to deploy all of those guys and really keep you off balance on defense."
Only two Bengals starters remain from that home opener, free safety Jessie Bates III and left end Sam Hubbard. Only three other defenders were here that day, cornerback Darius Phillips, defensive tackle Josh Tupou and linebacker Germaine Pratt. Think back to those first hours of 2020 free agency and how the Bengals balked at those huge linebacker contracts. They went to Plan B and picked off a Pro Bowler in Reader and a team changer in Bell while Joe Schobert plays on his third team and Blake Martinez recovers from an ACL tear. They got their linebackers in that draft and with Logan Wilson emerging as elite, they hope they can survive his absence on Sunday.
"We had just installed a big base of a five down linemen look and kind of hadn't really figured out what we were becoming just yet," Hubbard recalled this week. "We hit them as they were beginning their stride in their Super Bowl season and they ran us out of the stadium. They're going to try and do the same thing again, but we're in a different spot and we're well equipped to stop them. I definitely haven't forgotten that game."
They are equipped with huge players. Big-time players. Massive locker-room leaders and steel-belted producers, typified by Reader and Bell.
Reader has fulfilled his promise when they signed him as, if not the best nose tackle in the league, then one of the top. He comes into Sunday's game ranked third by Pro Football Focus among all of the NFL's defensive tackles against the run.
Meanwhile, Bell is a locker room pillar, a captain ever since he arrived from New Orleans. After every Friday practice, he convenes a brief but telling players-only meeting in the defense's team room
"It's a clean up meeting. He's making sure we're all on the same page," says linebacker Joe Bachie, who could be making his first NFL start Sunday.
The way playoff vet slot corner Mike Hilton sees it, Bell pulls up 10 plays from the call sheet on his iPad and calls them out.
"Make sure everybody knows what their teammates are doing on the whole defense," Hilton says. "Make sure we have an understanding of the game plan for Sunday. He gives the call and everybody makes their call.
"He takes a lot of pride in being a leader. He's one of the first ones in the building in the morning and one of the last to leave. Everybody knows that. A guy like that gets a lot of respect with what he brings."
Reader says the meeting goes about ten minutes, but it says so much.
"That's what you get when you get a leader," Reader says. "Someone who cares about it and makes sure that everybody else has to care about it."
Bell also faced the 49ers during their Super Bowl run in a stretch run the Saints won the NFC South. That was a good defense (New Orleans was ranked 11th that season) but the Niners won a 48-46 slugfest they put up 162 yards on just 27 rushes.
The same elements are at play. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle are lethal wild cards in Shanahan's array of jet motions that disguise powerful zone blocking and they were big factors in the 2019 game.
"44 (Juszczyk) and 85 (Kittle) who are willing to block and are great at doing it and getting to the second level. Pancaking guys, their backs trust them, reading their blocks and everyone just trusting one another and then how Shanahan just setting up the offense with the turbo motions and it's a little bit of both. "They have a great offensive line, they went and paid some money and got some great players, 71, he's a monster," Bell says of left tackle Trent Williams. "They really just trust in their guys, they got guys like 44.
"It's a lot of eye candy in your face so getting to move and replace them with guys left. Really just playing with great keys and fundamentals and really just having fun playing and making everything simple so you play fast and that's what we're going to do this weekend just go out there and let it hang out."
Bell has a monstrous assignment trying to contain the run and Kittle, who averages nearly 14 yards per catch, has five touchdowns and is a maniacal blocker.
"Play with great eyes because they move them a lot on jet motion and he'll lose you with the right keys and he'll slide right over you," Bell said. "So playing with great eyes, great technique and keep your eyes."
Reader knows what he has to do, too, especially with the Bengals missing two of their top three linebackers and that includes their leading tackler and signal caller in Wilson.
"Play the ball until I see it. Make plays. Make sure my linebackers are staying clean in the zones when they're getting doubled," Reader says. "Really just be aggressive, hold the line at the point, create picket fences for the defense and just make plays. That's always the job. I think this week is a little bit different in the aspect we're really playing that picket fence. Making sure those guys don't get vertical and split the tackles."
Anarumo received plenty of reinforcements in free agency last offseason, such as Hilton, leading sacker Trey Hendrickson and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. But Reader and Bell were the first and they made them so much stronger up the middle than they had been in years.
"He's the cornerstone of it all, as you notice," Anarumo says of Reader. "He's going to line up either on the center or shaded on a guard. He's right in the middle, and he commands. When they single block him, he has a good day, and any of those dominant guys inside, you're never going to see a whole bunch of stats.
"That's not a stat position. But when you can't move him, and he clogs up the middle and then does shed and get off blocks -- and DJs able to do that -- it just gives us that much more of an advantage so yeah, he'll be a key point along with the other guys helping us get this run game under control."
The Niners are hurting at running back. Their leading rusher, Elijah Mitchell (concussion, knee) hasn't practiced the last two days and backup Jeff Wilson, Jr., went full for the first time this week on Thursday. So the 49ers plucked a former Bengal from the Falcons practice squad this week, Brian Hill, and you can only hope he won't do to them what former Bengals defensive tackle Christian Covington did to them last week.
But the 49ers running game hasn't been as consistent as 2019, although in six of the last nine games they've rushed for at least 143 yards. They are 4-2 in those games and that includes a 208-yard game two weeks ago against Mike Zimmer's Vikings. The Bengals have allowed more than 143 yards just once and that was to a loss to Browns, ranked No. 1 in rushing.
"It's something to look back and say, 'Hey, here's how far we've come,'" Anarumo says. "I think that we're just a different group. Hopefully we'll show that on Sunday."