The Joe Burrow Bengals desperately needed their first spark of 2023 Monday night and as so often has happened during these four seasons, it came from the other side of the ball.
And as has happened more often than not in these four seasons, David Vernon Reader Jr., otherwise known as DJ, father of Rocky Reader, has been the spark of the defense. Burrow and Reader have played off each other for years. It all began with the Bengals making Reader their first free agent signing of the 2020s, a month before they made Burrow their first draft pick of the decade.
Take Monday night at sold-out-white-out-freaked-out Paycor Stadium.
The 0-2 Bengals had just gone down suddenly in a 7-0 hush on the Rams’ fourth play of the game. Until a replay showed hustling Bengals safety Nick Scott barely nudging Rams quicksilver wide receiver Tutu Atwell onto the chalk line at the Bengals 2.
“I was able to counter at the top. Saw him in the pocket and we got the sack,” Reader says after Thursday’s practice. “About time. We felt like we needed it.
“I think I swiped and kind of used a little hump move to get myself free when I saw the quarterback inside. Pass rush is not pretty. Sometimes it’s hand fighting. That’s just how it goes. I’m usually a hand-fighter. I’m not the quickest guy. I’m more of a physical rusher.”
There was Reader with one of the hand swipes he favors swimming across rookie guard Steve Avila’s face. Linebacker Logan Wilson, who would go on to have two interceptions in the game, might have made his biggest play of the night here. On his stunt, Wilson picked off center Chris Shelton, and as quickly as Atwell was in the end zone, Reader was lying on Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford at the 11.
Two incompletions later, the Rams had to kick a field goal. 3-0. Not 7-0. Bengals win, 19-16. While L.A fans turned from second-guessing Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to wondering about Rams head coach Sean McVay, Who-Dey Nation thanked the stars again for DJ Reader.
“We’re lucky we have him,” says Bengals center Ted Karras, who just got out of another training camp WrestleMania with Reader. “To go from a touchdown to giving up a field goal to winning the game, you can absolutely make that argument (the sack turned the game) and you should make that argument.”
When it comes to playing the game, Reader, one of the NFL’s more egregious Pro Bowl snubs, doesn’t like to immerse himself in thought processes.
“Keep them out of the end zone. Nothing else,” Reader says of those pre-snap thoughts. “I think the game is thought out too much sometimes. We make it complicated. I’m just thinking, keep them out of the end zone. Whatever comes up. Kind of react to that. You’ve got a pass play, you know you’ve got a chance. That’s kind of what happened.
“I don’t think we look at it that way,” says Reader of providing a spark. “We always need something to get us going. I say getting him out of bounds gave us another chance to fight. That gives you a little more energy. Let you know you’ve got an extra down. You’ve got a little more juice to get it done.”
It is after practice Thursday and Scott, the former Ram, is still mad at himself for not getting Atwell to the ground. But he has no doubts about Reader’s play.
“It was huge. It backed them up a little bit and locked those guys up and forced a field goal,” Scott says. “DJ’s different. I’ll take our odds with him. He just runs the trenches. It’s hard to get him out of the way. He just makes plays.”
So it seems a logical progression for the Bengals to head to Tennessee Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s FOX 19) in a 2020s rivalry dominated by Reader. He’s been the relentless point man for a band of AFC North rebels that has invaded the fiefdoms of Titians running back Derrick “King,” Henry at Nissan Stadium in each of the previous two seasons. They’ve overthrown him in wins the monarch has been able to decree only a combined 100 yards on 37 carries.
“Same thing. Read your keys and just play it,” says Reader, as always, keeping it uncomplicated. “They’ve got to run the ball. That’s the identity of their team. That’s how they’re built. We have to go out there and be more physical than them and just do our thing. Being physical and keying in on it. Eleven guys doing their job is always the key to stopping the run.”
It’s a bit ironic the biggest play of the season is a Reader sack. His rep has been made in games like the one against Henry. Ten months ago they held the NFL rushing leader to 38 yards on 17 carries. In the eight games Reader has missed the past two seasons, the Bengals have allowed an average of 132 rushing yards on 4.5 yards per carry. In the 28 games he’s played, they allow an average of 102 and 4.2, respectively.
After practice Thursday, Karras is talking about what makes Reader “the top of the game.” He’s bending his hand back to show his flexibility.
“His movement skills are just incredible,” Karras says. “He’s a 330-pound man and he can bend his ankle and knee all the way back. Leverage, press off with strength, and make plays. It’s quite incredible to watch some of the things he does in a game.”
Reader likes to keep track of NFL personnel through his Madden drafts. In fact, he did what the Titans did and drafted Northwestern left tackle turned left guard Peter Skoronski, knowing he’d be facing him. Tennessee grabbed him in the first round.
“I like his Madden rating,” Reader says. “He’s a good player. He’s going to be a good one.”
The matchup is going to have to wait. Skoronski underwent an appendectomy and isn’t back at practice. That means Reader probably gets the two guys he got last year in the 20-16 win, left guard Dillon Radunz, making his sixth NFL start in his third season, and center Aaron Brewer, a fifth-year undrafted free agent who started every game last year.
Does it matter that Brewer played at Skyline High School in Dallas and this week an image of Reader is on the cups Skyline Chili is handing out? Reader made sure five-year-old Rocky got three DJ Reader cups.
It was in Tennessee last year where Reader not only sandwiched the run but knocked down two passes.
Karras is trying to tell you why he can both rush the passer and stop the rush.
“He’s got good hand-fighting skills. I think one of the things he does great is moving forward,” Karras says. “He’s a big, strong man with good, lateral quickness. But when he pass rushes, he’s always gaining ground toward the quarterback. If someone finally tries to sit on him because of his power, then he pulls through and gets through. He’s got a wide array of moves.”
But Reader won’t complicate it this Sunday staring at another joust with King Henry.
“Especially how they run their scheme, the nose guard can really set the tone,” Karras is saying. “DJ is the best at what he does.”
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