Film Breakdown: Why DJ Reader is One of the Bengals' Best Defenders

The 27-year-old only appeared in five games last season.

Nose tackles play one of the least glamorous and most taxing roles in the NFL. They have to work constantly on their weight while also working out to become as strong as an ox. Most of the time they are getting hit by 600 combined pounds of offensive linemen as they absorb double teams. The average fan typically does not notice when they do their job well and they will still take the blame if the team’s run defense isn’t up to par. 

Last year, the Bengals made DJ Reader the highest paid nose tackle in the NFL when they gave him a four-year, $53 million contract. 

He was coming off of a career year in Houston. 

Reader lost about 20 pounds last offseason after signing the contract. This weight loss slightly increased his movement ability and gave him the opportunity to add more agility to his game. He played pretty well for the Bengals by most metrics. 

Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending quad injury and only appeared in five games.

Despite a small sample size, there was plenty of evidence of how the Bengals will lean on Reader going forward. Let’s dive into the film and watch some of his 2020 season.

The first thing that I noticed when going over Reader’s film was his strength and size. This comes as no surprise (being that he is about 320 pounds), but he is a freakishly strong guy. He was able to use this strength to dominate in the run game with some impressive reps.

In my opinion, none of those reps were more impressive than this one. You can see just how he utilizes his strength and size. He absolutely bullies the right guard here—using his lifeless corpse to close the A gap on 4th-and-1 against the QB sneak. It is an absolutely demolishing rep by Reader to make the tackle using the offensive lineman. Not only does he use strength when playing against the run, but he also makes an effort to remain technically sound against the run.

Despite missing the tackle, this is a very impressive play from Reader. He starts from a 2i alignment (just inside the guard) and is playing the interior A gap as his primary gap and the exterior B gap as his secondary gap. He shows good placement to get one hand on the sternum and the other on the bicep. After he punches into the defender, he locks him out by extending his arms. That allows him to stay clean and he can read the play easier. After the running back declares that he is going into the B gap, Reader is able to cross the guard’s face in position to make a tackle. He doesn't make the play, but everything else about this play is picture-perfect.

There were three plays in particular, against very strong competition, that truly highlight Reader’s ability to stop the run.

Here we get a wide zone from Cleveland (one of their favorite plays). Reader is able to help make the stop as the backside 1T, or the outside shoulder of the center. He quickly processes that this is a wide zone play and steps play-side. He keeps his chest and body clean from the reach block by second team All-Pro, Wyatt Teller, with his backside hand. In doing so, he stops Teller from being able to seal him off. This allows Reader get involved in the tackle against Nick Chubb, which is great because he is a fantastic running back for Cleveland. The more bodies that you can get to him, the better.

Now Reader is at 2T (head up over the guard) against another wide zone by Cleveland. The guard he is head up against is pro bowler Joel Bitonio. Once again, he is playing two gaps on this play. He strikes Bitonio with both hands in the chest to try and control the block. The rest of the defense succeeds in taking away the play side on this play. When Chubb starts to look backside, Reader exhibits an impressive ability to disengage by throwing Bitonio like a rag doll. Although this is another example where Reader does not make the play, he still forces Chubb to try to run through an unblocked defender and other Bengals who are ready to make the stop. This may not be listed as anything in the stat sheet, but it remains a very impressive and important play by Reader against some of the highest competition available.

For this final example of stopping the run, we get another wide zone play from the Browns. Reader is playing the role of 0T (head up over the center) in our bear front (interior DL alignments of 3T-0T-3T). The bear front has gained some popularity around the NFL as a way to stop wide zone because it limits the number of double-teams that the offense is able to execute. You can see how the bear front works here as the only combo block that Cleveland can execute is a deuce between Teller and Tretter against Reader. That combo does not work out very well for the Browns. In fact, they have a minimal impact on Reader as he is able to keep his body on the backside A gap with good hand placement (sternum and bicep) on Tretter. After Teller leaves to go block a linebacker, Reader extends and shoves Tretter out of his way. He finishes this play with a nice one-on-one roll tackle against Chubb.

Run stopping ability was expected when Reader signed with the Bengals, but he wasn't known for his pass rush skills. He didn't get any sacks for Cincinnati last season, but he showcased his potential pass rushing chops. Reader will probably never be a 10 sack guy, yet he has the ability to push the pocket with a bull rush and a quality counter.

The Bengals are in a 5-0 look vs the Jaguars empty set. This ensures that every player on the front will have a one-on-one opportunity. The Jaguars do a nice job of handling most of the defensive line, but Reader does bull rush the center back and condense the pocket. This makes Minshew's clock speed up and we see him start to scramble. Reader is able to make the tackle, but is not credited with anything other than a tackle on 3rd-and-long. Minshew dives forward for a gain of 2. Meanwhile, you can clearly see that this was a solid pass rush rep. He pressured the quarterback and moved him off of his spot.

Another example of Reader putting in work on a passing play, but not getting credit for it. This is an under front with the 3T (Reader) placed away from the run strength. What is interesting to me is that Sam Hubbard is placed as the "nose tackle" here by playing 2i (inside shoulder of the guard). This frees up Reader to have a one-on-one pass rush against Pryor who entered the season as Philly's backup right guard. He takes advantage of that with a bull rush to condense the pocket. 

Much like Minshew, this speeds up Carson Wentz's internal clock. We can see that the quarterback feels the pressure coming. As he starts to throw the ball, he does a fantastic job getting his hands into the air to take away passing lanes. Wentz throws the ball right into Reader's outstretched hand, thus allowing Logan Wilson to catch the wobbler for an easy interception. Wilson gets credited with a pick, but Reader did a ton of the work here. Having an effective bull rush is great, but every pass rusher needs a counter. If the offensive lineman sits back then the bull rush is open, but what if he tries to get on you before you can build up steam? Or what if he has a really nice punch to slow you down?

Related: Why Joe Mixon is the Bengals' Best Offensive Weapon

Reader's counter to his opponent jump setting or trying to get on him quickly appears to be this snatch/throw-by move. It uses the lineman's aggressiveness against them by slamming down on their hands to knock them off balance. This is clearly displayed here as AJ Cann falls onto his face on the jumpset by Reader's snatch move. This also gives him some momentum towards the quarterback like a slingshot. Again, it's another pass rush rep that does not get any love in the stat sheet because Minshew gets the ball out quickly to avoid taking a hit. Still, Reader forced the quick, inaccurate throw with a very nice pass rush rep. What both of these moves combine to give him is an "if-then" pass rush plan. If the offensive lineman sits on their heels—bull rush them backwards. If the offensive line attacks quickly—use a throw by move to take advantage of the situation.

The video above is another example of Reader's snatch/throw-by move. This time it gives you the opposite angle so you can watch him work a little bit better. You can see the offensive lineman jumpset, which is essentially gaining no depth and taking the fight to the defensive lineman. If the center would have gained depth, maybe Reader tries to push him backwards using his 320 pound body and strength. This is another dominant pass rush rep where Reader tosses Tyler Shatley onto the ground. There is a repeating pattern here where Reader is getting no credit for his pass rush wins. Fortunately, in the end, that does not mean he was a poor pass rusher. The external factors of quarterback play and scheme have done well to avoid him despite his victories.

Finally, I will discuss the areas of Reader's game that could be improved upon. I've already mentioned this first area earlier with how he missed a tackle on an otherwise fantastic rep against the run. It is the lack of mobility to put himself in position to make tackles that hurts his play.

This example provides a good look at the issue. Reader is playing 0T (head up over the center) in a bear front. One thing about this problem is that it usually shows up when he is playing his secondary gap as a "gap and a half" player. Here, his primary gap against this lead inside zone play is the front side A gap. He plays that well and then is able to cross face and shed the center's block to get to the backside A gap (his secondary gap). If he has just a little more movement to him, then maybe he could be a step or half a step more towards the backside after he sheds the block. That would then allow him to attempt a run through or profile tackle rather than the diving roll tackle he tries to make here—it’s mostly arms. 

You could classify this as "range" which I previously used to describe how Jessie Bates can cover anywhere in the secondary from the deep middle of the field. To me, however, this problem in the run game is not a core issue. It is something that would take him from a very good nose tackle to an elite nose tackle that stops teams from even attempting inside runs. Ironically, Reader’s second issue is a similar type of issue when it comes to defending the run.

Related: How Jessie Bates Became the Bengals' Best Player

His contact balance is a bit poor. It showed up mostly in the Browns game, but he does not do a fantastic job of knocking down a cut block and remaining upright period. This isn’t a huge deal due to rule changes, as cut blocks are a lot less prevalent than they were 15 years ago. However, they still occur and you do not want your star nose tackle to be taken out of a play by one guy. 

To paraphrase one-time University of Cincinnati defensive coordinator and former NFL head coach Rex Ryan, "I will never trade one for one. I will trade two for one, but not one for one." 

This is especially true when it comes to the guy that you want soaking up blocks and keeping your linebackers clean. You do not want that guy being taken out one-on-one in the run game. Perhaps you could also expect a tiny bit more out of him when it comes to pass rushing, but anything a nose tackle gives in the pass rush department is just gravy on top of everything else.

Personally, I see Reader having a strong case for the second best member of this defense. You can definitely argue about the value of a guy who can play two gaps in the run game while being more of a somewhat limited pocket pushing pass rusher. However, if you look at just the ability and talent, he is a very good player. 

The Bengals also clearly think that Reader is a great player with the contract that they gave him. As of now, he is one of the core members of this defense. His ability to stop the run and take on multiple guys allows for the Bengals’ linebackers to play more free and clean from offensive linemen. With the addition of Tyler Shelvin in this past year's draft, the Bengals should be able to give Reader more breaks on defense. In theory, this should keep him fresh and allow him to stay healthy. 

Reader could definitely make some noise this season and will likely play a key part in the 2021 Bengals defense.

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