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The Film Room: D.J. Reader

Houston’s favorite run stopping defensive lineman has made the jump from very good to Pro Bowler.

Carolina Panthers v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Progression isn’t always linear. Players don’t climb up and and up and up, hit their peak, and then descend down into retirement. Flesh is sculpted into something more defined and more rigid. New offseason regiments blow the top off the previous season. Injuries happen. The team, scheme, and even the rules themselves change. What happened the previous season isn’t always the same the following season.

After being selected in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft Reader started playing right away. He started seven games, and the following season, was the walk in starter at the nose tackle position. At that spot Reader could control multiple blockers, and circumvent rushes like a boulder in the center of a river, creating rapids, and changing the flow of water on his own. He was the type of player Houston desired when they signed Vince Wilfork.

Reader was strenuous to block in a double team, and an impossible individual assignment. By denting the center of the line of scrimmage, and tying up blockers, he created wide open lanes for the linebackers behind him, and turned drag races into twisted metal.

He was credited with 47 total tackles in 2017 and 33 in 2018, but the tackles he created for those around him was a large number that only the great pineapple man in the sky knows. The last two seasons Reader was a monumental component of one of the league’s best run defenses in 2017, and an all-time great run defense in 2018 that led the league in yards per carry, adjusted line yards, and run defense DVOA.

The problem with Reader is that football is a passing game. Throwing it is more efficient and more vital for a successful offense. Stopping the run is great and all, but it isn’t nearly as important as rushing the passer or covering receivers. Last season Reader had only 2 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 10 pressures.

That’s changed dramatically this season. After showing zero evidence of ever providing any sort of interior rush, Reader has nearly matched his pass rushing production four games into the 2019 season. Reader already has 1.5 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 4 pressures. After skimping on the interior rushers available this offseason: Sheldon Richardson, Malik Jackson, Gerald McCoy, and Mike Daniels, the Texans stumbled their way into a better situation.

Whitney Mercilus had to at least match Jadeveon Clowney’s production. Mercilus has checked this box and has been a more productive pass rusher than Clowney was. But, unlike last season, the Texans pass rush isn’t only J.J. Watt and another player. Reader, Zach Cunningham, Jacob Martin, Charles Omenihu and Benardrick McKinney all have four pressures to go along with Mercilus’s 9 and Watt’s 13. Without Clowney, and the secondary additions, the Texans are a better pass defense. They have improved from 8.8% (19th) to 1.4% (11th) in pass defense DVOA, from 7.4% (14th) to 8% (11th) in adjusted sack rate, and from 29.1% (20th) to 30.3% (10th) in pressure rate.

Reader is the biggest difference from last season’s pass rush and this one. The Texans’ interior pass rush in 2018 was composed of Clowney divebombing, or slanting inside. That was pretty much it.

Watt was matched up against right tackles. Reader, Angelo Blackson, Joel Heath, Brandon Dunn, and Christian Covington, were slathered and held in place on the interior.

Now, with Reader, the Texans finally have a true interior rusher. There are two types of Reader rushes, a maniacal bullrush against pass setting guards, and others where he turns an aggressive set into a very bad mistake.

The Texans are in Nickle. With the back lined up to the right, the Panthers are sliding the left side of their line one gap to the left, and are blocking man on man on the right. Reader is a ‘3’ technique against left guard Greg Van Roten (#73).

Reader reacts once Van Roten comes out of his stance pass setting, and sliding to his outside shoulder. He attempts to make a legitimate pass rush move, and tries to cut across his face and into the ‘A’ gap. He punches the inside shoulder, attempts to swim, and pops off. From there center Matt Paradis (#61) slides over. Reader’s is skinny trying to turn through the gap. Paradis times his punch wrong, and hits the side of Reader. He misses.

From there Reader immediately regroups. He turns his hands inside and faces Paradis head on. He dips his hips, punches the outside half of Paradis, and drives his legs in one motion. This rush takes Paradis six yards backwards. He extends and is unable to get off the block though. He’s unable to make the play. But he does create an earthquake in the center of the pocket.

This forces Allen backwards and leads to his escape. This is vital. Whitney Mercilus (#59) is up against Greg Little (#74). He long arms the left tackle, gets the outside shoulder, and drives. He’s wide though. He’s a hazy kite in the sky. Typically this rush won’t affect a quarterback. They can easily step up in the pocket, or the ball is out before it affects the play. Only absurd edge rushers like Von Miller can rush like this and bend the corner to come at a direct angle to the quarterback. Mercilus is able to chase, sack Allen from the backside, and force a fumble in the process.

This sack was generated by Reader’s bullrush. Most of Mercilus’s pass rushes look like this.

Wide and aimless without a direct impact on the play. The idea is that enough scrambles outside will create opportunities for him to play the ball, and they will lead to the tackle over setting and opening up the inside move for his spins and quick slants back inside.

Mercilus’s sack of Drew Brees came under the same set of circumstances. Reader is against Larry Warford (RG #67). As an outside shade on the guard, Warford pass sets to the right. Reader comes directly at him. Gets his hands inside and drives him all the way into Brees. He long arms him near the quarterback to eject off the rush and play the ball. Reader doesn’t get a chance to. Brees runs backwards and away, and by doing so, runs right into Mercilus, who once again, is wide and looping.

Because of his strength, and his ability to find the center of the guard, Reader can bullrush against pass setting guards. They typically don’t have the anchor to deal with him when they move laterally as he moves vertically.

When he catches half of a guard it’s game over. Reader can dismantle the half of all offensive linemen. Centers have to be decisive when sliding over in pass protection against Reader. He can split them and take his rush six yards deep up the pocket.

He’s a relentless vertical rusher. He fights through punches and his head being pinned pack, and keeps coming with hand fighting, long arms, and stomping feet.

Reader doesn’t bullrush every play. He reads his keys and the blocker really well. He turns pass sets into bullrushes, and aggressive quick sets into rips, and chops, and lateral movement in the opposite direction to get around offensive linemen.

Guards pass block like this to minimize the space 345 pound defensive linemen have to generate power on bullrushes. In previous seasons Reader didn’t have an answer for it. He’d be swallowed up. The ball is out. This season that has changed. Reader has a counter, and this has been the reason for his jump in pass rushing production.

Reader is a ‘3’ technique. He’s lined up against left guard Michael Schofield III (#66).

Schofield takes an aggressive set. He takes two slide steps to cover Reader up, and then a vertical one to deliver his punch. Reader comes off the ball straight ahead and out muscles him. His punch makes Schofield lean backwards, and he long arms with his left hand to create additional space. When Schofield falls back to Earth, he’s on Reader’s outside shoulder. He quickly jams his right foot down and starts running inside to chase down Philip Rivers.

In pursuit, he slightly rips under Schofield, and keeps his arm strong to prevent him from pushing him off his line. Schofield is able to do just enough though. Redirecting him to the left just a bit, and allowing Rivers to sidestep him and deliver a pass. The rush is quick. It’s immediate. It leads to an incompletion.

The dynamite lateral motion is what’s been missing from Reader’s game. Big. Strong. Keep your head down. Straight ahead. Hands and lateral movement like this are the foundation of any interior pass rush.

Rivers wasn’t so lucky for the entire game. Reader is matched up against Schofield again. The running back is a receiver, not a blocker, from the beginning of this play. The Chargers slide their protection over to J.J. Watt. It’s Schofield against Reader. Trent Scott against Whitney Mercilus.

Schofield slides to his right to wallop Reader. He ducks his head to add some spice to his punch. Reader as the inside shade, reads the slide step, and counters it by taking two vertical steps, planting, and cutting wide. Along the way he dips his inside arm, and uppercuts under Schofield’s outside arm, and uses his outside arm to yank Schofield down and add another bass drum to his head banging.

He curls along Schofield to center his pursuit with Rivers. This time Mercilus aids him. His bend puts him on an angle even with the quarterback. This forces Rivers to step up and directly into Reader. Call the grave digger.

This rush is similar matched up against A.J. Cann (#69). Outside shade. Punch. Yank. Rip. Find the quarterback. This time he forces Gardner Minshew into J.J. Watt, which leads to some Minshew magic instead of a negative play.

Reader is vital to the Texans’ pass rush, which is something that still sounds impossible. Romeo Crennel has realized this too. In the second half of the New Orleans game he kept Reader out in obvious pass rushing situations, and the Texans rush suffered because of it. Reader has made a life changing discovery. Brandon Dunn and Angelo Blackson still haven’t.

One game wasn’t enough. He did the same thing when they played Jacksonville. He kept Reader off the field on third downs. The interior rush struggles were still there. In the fourth quarter, with Minshew marching down the field, he put Reader back in. And once again, the pass rush opened back up with him sliding around aggressive guards, and going through pass sets. From then on Reader has been an every down player.

The Texans best missionary pass rush is Reader and Omenihu on the inside, and Watt and Mecilus out wide. Omenihu has been great as an energized bullrusher who uses fresh lungs and strong legs to go through exhausted offensive linemen. When Crennel wants to get funky, he’ll use some Watt loops, Cunningham or McKinney interior blitzes, or use Martin to slant inside. But as far as four man Nickle big on big rushes go, Reader has to be out there for the Texans’ pass rush to be at its best.

Reader is still a mythical figure in the run game. The Texans’ run defense has regressed. Reader hasn’t. Houston’s run defense without Clowney and Kareem Jackson has dropped from a run defense DVOA of -30.1% (1st) and 3.4 yards a carry (1st) to -16% (10th) and 4.8 yards a carry (23rd). The biggest issues are they are giving up too many yards at the second level, and they are not creating enough tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. They rank 20th in second level adjusted line yards. They are 27th in stuff rate and have only 11 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. Tomorrow’s opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, have made 28 of these plays.

This season Reader is more active making tackles along the line of scrimmage. He already has 12 run tackles, and 2 at or behind the line of scrimmage. Last season he made 26 run tackles and 6 at or behind the line of scrimmage. The bump in lateral quickness is paying off in both facets of the game.

This is a quick run stunt where Reader goes from one ‘A’ gap to the other. He gets across Brandon Linder’s face and sits in the hole. He keeps Linder occupied and doesn’t allow him to get to Cunningham, and he plays the opposite guard, stagnating the ‘duece’ block against Angelo Blackson. The play ends as a mass grave.

He’s impossible to block by one individual no matter the run scheme. It’s an inside zone play. The Jaguars have three tight ends matched up against Houston’s base 3-4 with Reader at nose tackle. Linder heads outside when the fireworks pop off during a New Year’s Eve party. He’s stuck blocking Reader all on his own.

He punches his chest head on. Extends him. Drives him slightly back. Maintaining the gap. Then long arms him to create enough space to come back inside and play the football.

The Panthers are running outside zone to the right with a dummy motion, and the tight end lined up as a tight wide receiver pulling to the backside to cut off Mercilus in case of a cutback. Reader is a ‘3’ technique.

Rather than play the guard head on and forward to take himself out of the play, or stay still and open up cutback lanes and allow the center to overtake the block, Reader reads the outside zone step. He runs laterally. Flowing liquid. Pops the inside shoulder of the guard and drives him into the backfield. He doesn’t run too far upfield. Reader tosses him, sits, and then plays the running back. Christian McCaffrey almost gets himself out of this one while Reader holds on.

Reader is a wardrobe filled with VHS tapes against double teams too. Reader isn’t just a nose tackle anymore either. Houston has him playing 3-4 defensive end too while Dunn comes in and plays the nose. It’s Reader against a powerful ‘duece’ block between Van Roten and Little.

He plays Van Roten. The second block from Little catches him off guard a bit. He buckles down. Dropping his right leg to create additional leverage and remain sturdy and in place. In this position he keeps one hand on each blocker locking them to the line of scrimmage. This allows Cunningham to flow to the ball after a Mercilus slant, and a Justin Reid (#20) run fill that forces McCaffrey back inside.

His play is littered with numerous examples of him playing one blocker, sticking on the line of scrimmage even with another pushing, and creating paths for those around him.

Sometimes his aura gives his linebackers a chance to play the ball.

And other times, he plays the double team and makes the tackle all on his own.

Reader has made the jump from nonexistent to a Richter scale capturing interior rusher, and because of this, Reader has gone from a very good player, a vital instrument on a great defense, to a Pro Bowl caliber interior defender. The Texans have been able to stave off the loss of Clowney because of his elite run defense and surprising pass rush improvement. As a result, Reader is one of the best interior defenders in the NFL, and a core component of Houston’s defense.