What does D.J. Reader bring to the Bengals’ defense?

Jack Lane
D.J. Reader (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
D.J. Reader (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

D.J. Reader, the headliner of the Cincinnati Bengals‘ 2020 free agency, class ostensibly missed the entire 2020 season. What should Bengals fans expect from D.J. Reader in his first full season with the team, and can he turn around an abysmal defensive unit?

After a disappointing 2019 season featuring one of the NFL’s worst defenses, the Bengals recognized that the entire unit needed an overhaul. The front office behaved uncharacteristically, dropping (non-guaranteed) bags for several free agents, including Trae Waynes, Vonn Bell, and of course D.J. Reader.

For the most part, the 2020 free agent class hasn’t had its chance to make an impact on the Bengals’ defense yet. Although Bell made a strong impact, Waynes missed the entire year, and Reader played only five games before missing the rest of the season.

Now, Bell and Waynes will lead a revamped secondary, while Reader bears the brunt of turning around the front seven. With the departures of Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Carl Lawson within the last year, the defensive line is in desperate need of replenishing. Reader has to be the cog in that effort.

What does D.J. Reader’s impact look like next season for the Bengals?

The Bengals’ roster currently lists Reader as a 6’3″, 347-pound defensive tackle, which should elicit pictures in fans’ minds of this year’s fourth round pick Tyler Shelvin. However, despite testing poorly coming out of Clemson (@MathBomb gave Reader a 2.97 RAS), Reader brings much more to the table than pure size and strength. Though, to be clear, Reader definitely brings that size and strength to the interior.

Reader’s strength isn’t just superficial, like his finishing of Lewan was above; he is capable of encumbering multiple blockers and eliminating rushing lanes for opposing teams. Whether Reader splits multiple linemen with his brute strength or removes them from helping block his teammates, he makes life immeasurably more difficult for running backs.

This review should be music to Bengals fans ears, as the run defense has been the glaring weakness in an already destitute unit. Allowing nearly 150 yards/game on the ground in both 2019 and 2020, the Bengals desperately need an interior anchor. Between Reader (and the aforementioned Shelvin), the Bengals may finally have the answer to their run-defense woes.

Watch here how Reader immediately beats this double team and stops the back before the line of scrimmage. Right off the snap, Reader uses his strength to drive the center backward, then uses only his right arm to fight off the right guard. Even as the center drags him down, Reader has enough balance and strength to stay upright, free himself, and wrestle down the running back.

Despite Reader’s ability to shed multiple blockers, offensive coordinators should not think for a minute about leaving Reader in a one-on-one matchup. His sheer size and strength, plus his quickness off the snap, are overwhelming for most offensive linemen.

Here, Reader (as a Bengal!) punishes the Ravens’ left guard before quickly planting, changing directions, and making the stop.

One thing that Reader has critically improved upon since entering NFL is his ability to work in space. Unsurprisingly, a defensive tackle with his traits would be solid on the interior (not to diminish how good Reader is as an interior stopper), but Reader’s ability to get to the outside, track rushers, and either contain them or make the tackle has greatly increased his value as a run stopper.

In the first clip here, Reader tracks the back perfectly. As the running back begins to bounce the run outside, Reader eats up two blockers while trusting his cornerback to keep contain and make the tackle if necessary.

Then, once the back cuts back inside, Reader sheds his blockers and steps up to make the tackle in space. In the second clip, Reader demonstrates his insatiable motor and improved speed in working to the outside; seriously, how many defensive tackles can make this play?

To this point, I have talked exclusively about Reader as a run stopper, which is not entirely fair to him. As Atkins likely moves onto a different team, the Bengals will not be able to replace his insane pass-rush production with Reader. Despite continually improving each year, he has only accumulated 6.5 sacks over his five-year career.

Reader is no Atkins acolyte, nor has he ever tried to be. What Reader lacks in dynamic pass-rushing, he makes up for with the same space-eating ability he provides in the run game.

Outside of the occasional Pat Mahomes or Russell Wilson scramble, the biggest pass plays come when the quarterback has time to scan the field, dissect the defense, and step into an intermediate or deep throw. Thus, the pass rush has to collapse the pocket as quickly as possible to make the opposing quarterback as uncomfortable as possible.

That’s what Reader offers as a pass rusher—the ability to push the interior of the pocket and force the quarterback into a scramble. Often, that movement can push the quarterback right into the outstretched arms of one of Reader’s teammates for a sack. As I noted last week, I expect someone like rookie Joseph Ossai to clean up a lot of these sacks.

Watch these two snaps—Reader destroys the pocket singlehandedly on both plays. In just a matter of seconds, Reader is able to push the pocket backward at least five yards, forcing the quarterback into an uncomfortable throw.

On the Logan Wilson interception, Reader not only disrupts the pocket, but he also gives himself enough freedom to get in front of Carson Wentz and tip the throw.

As I said, single-teaming Reader is a fool’s errand.

Overall, the Bengals will not be able to rebuild some of their better defenses of the past decade just by adding Reader. However, Reader’s skills are tantalizing, and a full season of him, paired with some of the new additions to this defense, should result in a greatly improved unit.

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D.J. Reader should give Bengals fans reason for optimism, and this season will remind the national audience that he is one of the biggest interior disruptors in the entire NFL.