Reader expects to play in Bengals’ preseason opener

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)

Defensive lineman hasn’t played since Week 5 of 2020 because of season-ending injury

CINCNNATI -- D.J. Reader had one of his best practices of training camp Sunday, and despite easing back into a routine early on, the Cincinnati Bengals nose tackle says he thinks he will be ready to play Saturday in the first preseason game of the year.

The Bengals play at Tampa Bay on Saturday, and if Reader does get snaps, it would be his first competition against an opposing team since Week 5 last year when he suffered a season-ending quad injury.

Reader said he was under the impression he would be available to play but he just wants to make sure he gets some game reps before the regular-season opener, whether that comes this week or in one or both of the final two preseason games.

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“I think it’s super important for me to get those live game reps,” Reader said. “Just getting more confidence in my leg, I think I feel pretty good not really favoring it. I don’t think about it when I’m playing, kind of bothers me more when I’m standing still than when I’m actually out there playing. Things going on, that’s really it. Those are important reps and everybody saw at the beginning of the season last year just how sloppy the players were across the league.”

No one played preseason games last year, and Reader was one of several newcomers to the Bengals, who could have used a chance to settle in together before the real games began.

Reader hasn’t played a game since Oct. 11 and would like the chance to see where he’s at physically and mentally before he’s really needed. The sixth-year veteran was still rehabbing his quad and knee during the offseason workouts, but he was fully cleared for the start of training camp and the Bengals have just been bringing him along slowly.

It’s been a long road for Reader, but through the rehab process, he said he confirmed what he already knew about himself – that he’s “a fighter, a warrior.”

“I never had a major injury before,” said Reader, who joined the Bengals as a free agent last year after spending his first four seasons with the Texans. “It’s a little bit different from an ACL or anything like that, you’ve got to sit still for six weeks. That was the hardest part of it, being down, not being able to play ball. Having my son not being able to chase me around was really tough.”

Reader came back in better shape than he’s been in a long time. After weighing 347 pounds to start last season, he is down to 326 now and pleased with where he’s at physically.

The mental part of trying not to think about the injury was more difficult to overcome.

“It is at the beginning,” Reader said. “You get flashes. As long as you get those flashes, you get confidence. I had a lot of people around me, a lot of my previous teammates and guys that I’ve played with and friends around the league, they kept me encouraged, told me how it was going to go. They’ve been injured, been down and out and they told me how it was going to go. You’re going to have days where you felt really good and days you didn’t. I took those days, every day as a step. When I did feel good I felt great, and some days I didn’t feel good. I still pushed through.”

Reader looked like a player progressing Sunday, showing effectiveness in the run defense and applying pressure up the middle. Last year in his five games, he didn’t have a sack and only had one quarterback hit after recording 2.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits in 2019 with Houston.

That’s something he wants to do more of this year is make an impact in the pass rush. Cincinnati never found a consistent pass rush from the interior last year.

“That’s always a goal, but it’s just becoming a better player,” Reader said. “Rushing better, having a better plan. Year 2 in a new system, coming into a new system last year trying to figure it out, I got more of a grasp in it this year, I’ve got more confidence in myself as a player and my ability as a rusher.”

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said he’s just glad to see Reader back on the field, but especially in the shape he’s in now. Anarumo said Reader looks the best he’s seen him and it’s easy to see he’s “itching to get back out there.”

Meanwhile with Reader being somewhat limited and Larry Ogunjobi out with a hamstring injury, the Bengals have gotten a chance to see what kind of depth they have behind the starters. Injuries impacted the defensive line heavily last year and Cincinnati attacked that through the draft this year. Now others are getting a chance, like Josh Tupou, who sat out last year, and rookie Tyler Shelvin.

“They’ve been doing well,” Reader said of the backups. “I think getting those live practice reps in (Saturday) was a good test to seeing how those guys react. They’ve done a good job getting thrown in there in and out, making sure rotations are good. I think everyone’s doing a good job of just playing hard no matter what happens, right or wrong. We’re playing very, very hard. Guys are out there flying, getting things done.”

SATURDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Buccaneers, 7:30 p.m., Ch. 12 (WKRC, Cincinnati); Ch. 22 (WKEF, Dayton); 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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