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The Elephant in the Room, D.J. Reader Back for Browns Rematch with Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals are looking to avenge the loss they suffered to the Cleveland Browns on Halloween. One of the reasons that may feel confident is the presence of defensive tackle D.J. Reader.
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The availability of wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase will shape the matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, but another player who missed the first game due to injury could be just as impactful in the rematch between these two teams. D.J. Reader, the hulking nose tackle is healthy and playing well, which poses a substantial challenge for a Browns offensive line that has had their share of issues in recent weeks.

Trey Hendrickson has been everything the Bengals have hoped since signing him as a free agent and the defense has a number of solid defensive linemen including B.J. Hill and Sam Hubbard, but Reader adds so much to what that defense is able to do. The 340+ pound nose can dominate the line of scrimmage and threaten the quarterback, which makes everyone around him better.

Meanwhile, the Browns are on their third center in Hjalte Froholdt and they have gotten mediocre returns from Wyatt Teller at right guard coming off a calf injury that kept him out of the lineup for a few weeks. The combination of Teller and Jack Conklin on the right side of the line has been clunky to put it kindly. All of this is happening while they introduce Deshaun Watson into the offense and put in some concepts they didn't utilize when Jacoby Brissett was leading the offense. Hardly ideal considering the gravity of this game for the Browns. Their playoff hopes are hanging on by a thread.

To Froholdt's credit, he plays with a ton of effort and he's bigger than the average center. He understands how to play center, but is a guard by trade, so he's still trying to get the feel for the position on the fly. Teller has had his share of just bad plays in recent weeks, especially in pass protection. The concerning issue for Teller is dealing with moving targets in the running game. The Browns were able to find success against the imposing front of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers featuring Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks, so that could give them some confidence heading into Sunday.

So even as Reader is an outstanding physical presence, he's a big target, which could prove helpful for Teller. It could enable the All-Pro guard to just lock on and drive him as part of a double team in the running game. Still, the Browns offensive front has to find a way to contain Reader without allowing his teammates to take over the game.

The introduction of Watson into the lineup has the Browns utilizing more inside zone as a means to initiate their run pass option concepts. That should allow the Browns to double Reader even in some situations where they will end up passing the ball. If that can keep Reader from getting inside penetration, keeping Watson's feet clean, it could help him focus on his reads rather than the pass rush.

If the Browns employ more of their gap concepts, especially power and counter, it could keep Reader off balance as the offensive line blocks down on him from either side. If they are able to move him off the ball, his size naturally walls off teammates from getting to the ball carrier.

Undoubtedly, the play and comfort level Watson displays will impact how the Bengals are able to play defense. The Houston Texans committed numbers to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, betting Watson wouldn't be ready to beat them. They were right and the Browns needed non-offensive touchdowns to secure the victory. Should the offense be limited by quarterback play again, it only puts more pressure on the offensive front, giving them little room for error.

If Watson is more comfortable and can force the Bengals defense to play back further, it creates space and breathing room for the running game. That could be enough to get the offense going and enable them to get the victory.

The problem is that even if Watson were at the peak of his powers, this Bengals front has the talent to cause problems if the opposing protection isn't playing well. Reader has the ability to muddy throwing lanes and take away the ability to step up in the pocket or try to escape forward. That would make Hendrickson more dangerous coming off the edge. 

The Browns have so often been able to count on excellent offensive line play to power their offense and hide some deficiencies including against the Bengals. Currently, Jedrick Wills is wildly inconsistent. Conklin and Teller are both recovering from injuries impacting their play. Those limitations might be resulting in some of the poor habits visible on tape. Froholdt is doing his best, but he's naturally at a disadvantage. Bill Callahan is one of the best offensive line coaches on the planet, but the Browns have issues to work out up front and no time to do it.

In order to beat the streaking Bengals, the Browns need a number of things to go right. One of the more critical elements will be the play of the offensive line and their ability to stop this Bengals defensive line, especially D.J. Reader.