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Film Breakdown: Analyzing D.J. Reader's Incredible Performance Against the Titans

The veteran was dominant in Nashville on Saturday.

He may not be the first person that national media talks about, but D.J. Reader was a dominant force in the divisional round against the Titans. 

He was possibly the main cause of Derrick Henry's struggles. Reader refused to be blocked one-on-one and if they tried to combo or double him, half the time he would beat that too. His fantastic performance was the ignition behind the Bengals' stout run defense. 

Let’s dive into the film to see exactly what Reader did to dominate the Titans.

This play tells me a few things. The first is that the Bengals know the Titans' kill call. Their kill call seems to be the same as the Bengals, so that’s easy to understand. The second thing is that they know that in this situation, the Titans are killing the run to flip it to the other side. Once the Bengals see Ryan Tannehill put his hands up to his helmet they immediately shift Reader to 3-technique and B.J. Hill takes his spot as the 2i. This is key because a lot of teams want to run wide zone to the “bubble.” The bubble is the area between the nose tackle and the end in the B gap. So by moving Reader to 3T, they have not only closed the bubble but they also have put their best run defender in that spot.

On the snap of the ball, Reader punches into the left guard which gives him complete control of this situation. With his arms fully extended, he can keep the guard at a distance while he peeks around him to see the running back’s intentions. Finally, Reader sheds the block and makes a solo tackle on Derrick Henry. This is textbook defensive line play from him: lock out the guard, find the back, shed the block, and make the tackle. When you’re talking about two Pro Bowl type guys in Rodger Saffold and Henry, that makes this so much more impressive.

Here we get a combination of Reader’s pretty good movement skills with his technical ability. The Titans saw what Reader just did to Saffold when they tried to run wide zone towards him. Now they’re going to run it away from him because a nose tackle should not be making a play on wide zone away. 

Reader has a great first step on this play to gain a lot of width. He is the opposite side 3-technique so he needs to really move to make a play happen here. Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan does not have as good of a first step and with that, he has lost the rep. Reader is then able to take Lewan’s contact on his shoulder to keep his chest clean and he is free to do what he wants. He keeps Lewan at a distance before finally making another tackle on Henry. A 330 pound guy should not be able to make a play on wide zone away from the opposite 3 technique, but Reader is not your average nose tackle. Great job from the front side of this play as well to not allow Henry to bounce this ball to the outside. Hill does a fantastic job of locking out the guard which makes Henry pause right before Reader hits him.

This play is a great showing of Reader’s strength and his hand placement. The Titans are once again trying to run away from him, but he is just so talented that he can still make these plays. Here, he perfectly places his hands on the right guard. One hand on the sternum and the other on his bicep. This allows him to really control the lineman. He then uses his strength to steer Nate Davis all the way to the opposite side of the formation. When he reaches the back, he throws Davis aside and then makes the stop on Henry once again. Another dominant rep from Reader as he takes another player and treats him like a blocking sled. There is no resistance from Davis as Reader drives him into the running back. Just an absolute stud play from the Bengals nose tackle.

Reader even made a splash with his pass rushing chops. Watch as he treats Saffold like he’s a coach during a walkthrough drill. He easily locks him out while he watches to see what's happening. When he recognizes it’s play action and not a running play, he uses his snatch move to throw Saffold aside. That process almost looks like he is doing it on air, but instead, he’s doing it to a former 2nd team All-Pro. Finally, Reader dips his shoulder so Saffold can’t recover and finishes the play with a big hit on Tannehill. Just a second too slow or he would have gotten a sack, but still this rep was incredible. Reader took over this game as a nose tackle. There are only a handful of guys who can say they have done that in a high leverage playoff game.

They’re finally going to call for a combo on Reader rather than attempting to block him one-on-one. Reader puts one hand on Saffold and extends it to lock him out. Saffold can’t fight with this to try to get a better combo, so he moves on to the second level where his assignment is. Center Ben Jones thought that he was getting more help than this and has to know he is toast when he sees Reader unaffected by the combo. He tries to reach him, but Reader turns so that the contact hits him on the shoulder rather than the chest. This once again renders the block against him useless and he just goes wherever he wants to go. He makes it all the way to the running back and finishes with a stop. Reader is not only destroying every solo block that he gets but even when they combo him it’s a useless endeavor.

Jones wins this rep at the very start. It’s not the greatest first step from Reader and Jones is able to reach and get his helmet across him into the correct spot. Reader is just so strong and powerful that he is able to push and scrape to cross Jones' face. Once he gets across Jones, he has won the rep. Not to mention that on that initial “loss,” Reader is driving Jones 4 yards into the backfield. He finishes with a nice wrap of Henry’s legs to bring him down for yet another run stop.

In all of these plays, you can see that Reader is a dominant force not only in block destruction but also in stopping the ball carrier. It’s a great play for a nose tackle to beat the block and force the running back to move somewhere else. It’s an elite play for a nose tackle to beat the block and then also make the stop on the running back. When you factor in that he was beating All-Pro and Pro Bowl level guys, while tackling a future hall of fame running back, you can see how this performance was truly special. 

Reader might not get as much national recognition as he deserves, but he had one of the best performances of the weekend.

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