BENGALS NT D.J. READER VS. JAGUARS QB GARDNER MINSHEW II
Reader, the richest free agent Bengals history, earns every cent Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) as the last man standing on the defensive line at Paul Brown Stadium when the X factor looks to be how the bruised and battered Bengals front responds to unthinkable adversity after its best game of the season hounding Carson Wentz in Philadelphia.
The game features two of the more prolific rookie quarterbacks ever when the Bengals' Joe Burrow faces Gardner Minshew II. Burrow comes in with the most passes and completions by a quarterback in his first three NFL starts against Minshew, the sixth-rounder that led all rookie quarterbacks last year in wins and quarterback rating.
One of those wins came in this building in a rather ugly set-to on a day that Minshew completed less than 50 percent of his passes. But he ran out of the pocket enough to rush for 48 yards on nine carries to highlight a 216-yard rush day that whacked the Bengals, 27-17.
And four Bengals turnovers didn't hurt.
It's no secret how to beat Minshew. Keep him in the pocket and make him throw drop-back passes. Since he likes to duck into the middle of the pocket and fry man-to-man coverage or force the backers to come to him, it's not only a huge contain game for the ends but the tackles, too.
And there's the rub. Make that rub-out.
When Mike Daniels went down for what looks to be at least a month with an elbow injury in Thursday's practice, Reader is the only tackle left from the off-season depth chart. No Geno Atkins (shoulder) yet, inactive for the fourth straight game. They never had Josh Tupou (opt out) and Ryan Glasgow (failed physical). They barely had Renell Wren with a season-ending quad tear.
They traded for six-year vet Christian Covington during final cuts and Reader's old Texans line mate may not be Atkins or Daniels, but the journeryman's experience has been a godsend. After that, it is ends trying to play tackle and young and green tackles that have barely taken any NFL snaps just trying to play.
"Every team has injuries. My job is to get the next man ready," barks defensive line coach Nick Eason. "This guy is a good quarterback who makes plays with his legs. I'm always on my guys for a coordinated pass rush. We can't let those sacks get away like they did last week. He's better than he was last year.
Eason says his guys should have sacked Wentz six times last Sunday, but they missed three. The day he got hurt, Daniels talked about what the tackles have to do against Minshew after he saw Wentz tie the game running out of the pocket on the game's last drive.
"This guy, he'll pull it down a little bit faster — a lot faster — than Wentz did. I think Wentz trusts his situation a little bit more," Daniels said. "If Wentz would take off and run and get the yards he did against us, even though he's a patient quarterback, if we do what we did last week, it's only going to be worse with this guy, who's a really good runner. That definitely took away, knowing how important our body position is and our gap assignments in relation to the pass rush."
Daniels says one of the many good things about Burrow is that he's a very athletic quarterback and he has been giving them a good look in practice. Last season Minshew became the fifth rookie quarterback to throw for at least 20 touchdowns (21) and rush for 300 yards with 344. Burrow is on pace to be the sixth with 27 TD passes and 341 yards. After Minshew, of course, the Bengals get Lamar Jackson in Baltimore.
"Practicing against Joe during camp was a tune-up for all of that because that guy has got some wheels on him," Daniels said. "We've seen it. Going against Minshew is definitely going to help out as well (in) getting ready for Lamar. But right now, our focus is Minshew and that's all we're concerned with. That's the only person we care about right now. We'll see who we have to go against next week. But Minshew is the main focus. Containing him, stopping him and getting after him is our main focus this week, on top of stopping the run, obviously."
"Stopping the run," isn't a throwaway line against head coach Doug Marrone's Jags. He loves to run the ball and Minshew needs that running game. Against the Bengals last year it was running back Leonard Fournette's 131 yards that put them over the top. This year Marrone is battering people with an undrafted rookie named James Robinson. The 5-9, 219-pounder is rolling up more than six yards per carry and already has 210 yards.
Enough that the Bengals remember the last time they didn't have Daniels. It was two weeks ago in Cleveland with the Browns gouging them with 215 yards while Reader played 92 percent of the snaps.
Against the Eagles, they were better with Daniels, more locked in on the run.
"I think we did a good job, especially towards the end of filling things in, playing together in the run," Reader said. "I think they had some big plays on a couple whams and draws and QB scramble yards, but I think at the end we kind of locked in and focused on getting them behind early in downs."
Unfortunately, Daniels is going to be more of a coach against the Jags this Sunday. Here is his advice against Minshew:
"We have to be where we are supposed to be. We can't be undisciplined with our rush lanes because he'll make you pay for that," Daniels said. "We definitely have a quarterback in our division who is the best in the league at that. Anytime we have a chance to play against somebody who does that is a good thing for us because we are always in that right mind.
"Doing what we're supposed to do and not getting too undisciplined. Sometimes you get a little mixed up week-by-week with who you play against. You might play against a quarterback who doesn't move, and you can get a little wild in your rush. Or, you play against a quarterback and all he does is run and now you've carried over some bad habits. There are a lot of running quarterbacks in this league, so this isn't anything that we haven't faced."
Starting with Burrow in practice.