CINCINNATI – One can forgive defensive tackle DJ Reader for not remembering the play. He was barely involved.
In a Week 13 game in 2017 between the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans, the Titans stacked their line of scrimmage to the right side. After the snap, running back Derrick Henry took a quick step right before darting left, against the momentum of the defense. Henry took the ball to the edge — far away from Reader — and all the way to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown.
Whether it’s been with the Texans or now with the Cincinnati Bengals, Reader has more than held his own against Henry, one of the NFL’s best running backs in recent years. In nine meetings against a Reader-led defense, Henry averages 44.4 rushing yards per game. In Henry’s other 96 NFL games, he has run for an average of 84.4 yards a contest.
On Sunday, they will meet again when the Bengals travel to Nashville to face the Titans (1 p.m. ET, Fox). In a career that has been void of any big accolades, Reader’s historical performances against Henry and opposing running games is a reason why his coaches and teammates believe he’s one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL.
And matchups against the best such as Henry are the ones he relishes most.
“I mean, if you see that guy back there and you're not going to feed him the ball, you’re crazy,” Reader said. “It's just one of those things that I know I do well, he does well.”
It’s not just Henry’s rushing totals that are a testament to Reader’s skill. Reader has earned his teammates a lot of money. During Reader’s tenure with the Bengals, Cincinnati’s other three starting defensive linemen and the two starting linebackers have earned contract extensions worth a total of $148.5 million.
Cincinnati has transformed from AFC North doormat to Super Bowl contender over the past three seasons. But even before the Bengals drafted quarterback Joe Burrow with the first overall pick in 2020, they signed Reader to a four-year deal worth $53 million.
At the time, that was the most money Cincinnati had ever given to an external free agent. And unlike other defensive linemen who secure similar contracts, Reader didn’t rack up sacks. In four seasons with the Texans, he never had more than 2.5 sacks.
And yet, the Bengals outbid the Denver Broncos and the Buffalo Bills to land Reader and improve a run defense that was the NFL’s worst in 2019. Bengals coach Zac Taylor has said Reader has exceeded all expectations.
“DJ has been the heartbeat of this team,” Taylor said.
Bengals defensive line coach Marion Hobby has kept an eye on Reader since the moment he signed with Clemson as a multisport athlete. Hobby was a Clemson assistant for Reader’s entire college career. Although the recruiting services viewed Reader as an offensive guard, Hobby viewed him as a promising defensive tackle who played with power and had quick feet.
Despite being a letterwinner for Clemson’s football and baseball teams, Reader says he wasn’t the most skilled player. To gain an edge, he had to master all the technical details to win at the line of scrimmage.
“I know I’m athletic enough to do a lot of stuff,” Reader said. “But again, I’m not the fastest, not the quickest. So it’s those type of things are the things I have to key on.”
Along with his football knowledge, Hobby said Reader takes pride in being able to plug multiple gaps at the line of scrimmage.
“That's the biggest question he'll ask — ‘Who's got that gap?’ Because he don't want that thing running by him,” Hobby said.
Reader’s versatility allows defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to use other players in creative ways. Anarumo said he can commit extra defenders into passing areas since Reader commands so much attention in the middle.
“He's never blocked one-on-one, ever,” Anarumo said. “If he's doubled, he'll still make a play.”
And despite his size at 6-foot-3, 335 pounds, Reader can still get upfield and get after the quarterback when needed.
Early in the Week 3 game against the Los Angeles Rams, Reader beat a block and sacked quarterback Matthew Stafford to set up a field goal. The play was a tone-setter, and proved to be the difference in the Bengals 19-16 win, Cincinnati’s first victory of the season and one the team felt it urgently needed.
“That’s DJ,” said Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton. “That’s what you expect. One of the best D-tackles in all of football.”
While that sentiment is unanimous in Cincinnati’s locker room, Reader has not earned a Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection in his first seven seasons as a pro. That has grated on him at times, particularly in 2019 when he felt he was snubbed in his final year with the Texans.
Reader is in the final year of his contract with the Bengals. When he considers his legacy, what matters most is how he’s remembered as a teammate and what others will tell his 3-year-old son, Rocky, when he asks about his father.
“If I can leave this league and one day when my son or somebody's walking around and they hear his name and they're like, ‘Oh man, your dad was a hell of a player,’ that's all I care about,” Reader said.
In the absence of personal trophies, Reader will be able to point to his numbers against Henry and the success his Cincinnati teammates have enjoyed both individually and as a team.
For those who know Reader best, there’s no question about Reader’s standing among his peers.
“I think every coach [in the league], every player knows what he’s about, how he plays the game,” Anarumo said. “For whatever reason, people sleep on him. That’s fine for us. He deserves all the credit in the world.”