It seems ironic that the part of the game that fans watch the most is often the one that sees the most underrated players, the trenches. Whether it is offensive linemen or defensive linemen, it isn’t the most digestible aspect for casual fans to instantly form an accurate opinion on because it isn’t always as easy as one player beating another. Each rep is more of a game of chess on how a defensive lineman will try to attack the blocker, or what gap the defenders are responsible for filling.
This leads us to the discussion of one of the most underrated Cincinnati Bengals (even among its own fans) defensive tackle D.J. Reader. The most recent example is being snubbed as a top 10 defensive tackle in ESPN’s most recent rankings. He was merely listed as another defensive tackle receiving votes. Not even in the honorable mention.
There is one big issue people have when measuring a player like Reader to his colleagues. They go straight to the box scores and see how many sacks that player has or how their pass rush win rate looks. Yes, pass rushing is a huge part of the NFL. It is a valuable skill, but what Reader did for the Bengals this year was just as impressive as whatever sack totals are being touted among those finishing in the top 10.
The two seasons prior to 2021, the Bengals had one of the worst interior defenses. It wasn’t uncommon for teams to rip off sizable gains just by running up the middle. They often met little to no resistance. It was one of the biggest issues that led to the defense not being able to get off the field. Offenses were usually in reasonable downs and distances because they could just run the ball very easily. Cincinnati went out and added Reader for the 2020 NFL season, but he got injured missing most of the season.
In 2021, Reader was an absolute force in the middle. It isn’t a coincidence we saw guys like B.J. Hill and Larry Ogunjobi pop off with sacks or big plays in the backfield. Reader is a players that demands to be blocked by two players or he can blow up plays (sometimes he still will). That opens everything else up for defenders to do their jobs on rushing the passer or getting to the ball carrier.
The crown jewel of Reader’s 2021 performance was absolutely shutting down Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans’ running game in Tennessee. There were actual analysts saying there was no way the Bengals defense could stop Henry after Ogunjobi went down in the Oakland Raiders game with an injury. No offense meant to Ogunjobi, but that just illustrates how much what Reader does on the field doesn’t get noticed. He even played a huge part in shutting down a Los Angeles Rams questionable rushing attack that attempted to take advantage of a defense anticipating the pass.
Reader may never be a defensive tackle who will get you six to 10 sacks in a season, but he quite possibly was the biggest (no pun intended) reason for this defenses turnaround in 2021. He should get his rightful respect for that.