Reader’s return a boon to Bengals run defense

Cincinnati Bengals' D.J. Reader runs a drill during NFL football practice in Cincinnati, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
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Cincinnati Bengals' D.J. Reader runs a drill during NFL football practice in Cincinnati, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals’ game at Baltimore last year wasn’t a fond memory for the team, but it was especially deflating for defensive lineman D.J. Reader.

Reader was carted off with a season-ending quad injury in that fifth game of the 2020 season, and the Bengals went home with a 27-3 loss knowing they would have to finish the year without their big run stopper up front. He went on injured reserve the next day and spent the rest of the season and most of the offseason rehabbing.

Reader’s return has helped Cincinnati improve its run defense in 2021, and that will be a big factor Sunday when the Bengals (4-2) return to Baltimore for a matchup against the AFC North-leading Ravens (5-1).

“If I didn’t go through that pain, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Reader said of his path back from that injury and up to now. “My coach when I was younger always told me there’s a pain in discipline and there’s a pain in regret. I really lived with the pain of discipline this offseason. I didn’t want to have any regret coming into this year about what I was going to do and how I felt about the season. I had a lot of people behind me. A lot of teammates picked me up. A lot of people in my family. So it helped out a lot.”

Cincinnati ranks eighth in the league defending the run, allowing just 90.5 rushing yards per game, and Reader gets a lot of credit for that while plugging up the middle of the field. ProFootballFocus.com grades him at an 85.1 this season, as he does much more than what shows up on his stat line with 22 tackles, one sack and three quarterback hits.

The Ravens, meanwhile, promise to test that. They rank fourth in the NFL in net offense (266.5 yards per game) and seventh in points scored (28.3 point per game) in large part because of their 155.2 rushing yards per game, which also is fourth best in the league.

Much of Baltimore’s success running the ball comes from quarterback Lamar Jackson, who leads the team with 392 yards rushing on a team-high 64 carries, but the Bengals figured out how to shut him down in the road matchup last year by having a linebacker spy him the entire game. Any successful gameplan against Jackson is going to require similar discipline from the defense as a whole.

“Everybody just bought in,” Reader said. “Everybody played hard. We didn’t get the end result we wanted, so we’ve got to go out there and do it again and make sure we’re doing a good job of being disciplined and playing where we’re supposed to play. That’s the gameplan. Be disciplined, played physical and just got out there and do what you’ve got to do.”

Cincinnati’s defense ranks first in yards after contact, which is another area that will be put to the test with Jackson as elusive as he can be. Reader said the Bengals have been focusing on “11 hats to the ball every time” and the work on that in practice has paid off for the defense.

With Jackson, the defense has to be ready for a creative adjustments after the original play.

“The creative play is just effort,” Reader said. “That’s what it comes down to. He’s making an effort to make a play. They’re making an effort to scramble, get open, everyone’s making an effort. So I think those big plays come down to who’s putting the best effort forward. They’re gonna make plays. They’re a good team. Everybody gets paid. Everybody’s gonna make plays and go out there and play hard, but you have to give that effort every single play so that you’re in there last and make the last play.”

Jackson also has two new running backs carrying the load out of the backfield now that Mark Ingram is gone and J.K. Dobbins is on injured reserve. Latavius Murray adds 212 yards and four touchdowns on 59 carries, and Ty’Son Williams has 170 yards and one touchdowns on 31 rushes.

That’s where Reader looks to make his biggest impact.

“It’s great to have DJ in front of you,” cornerback Mike Hilton said. “He’s going to plug up the hole. He’s going to make it difficult for the running backs to get started. He’s really a disrupter. You can see through these seven games, he’s made a lot of plays for us.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Ravens, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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