Bengals defense confident after strong start

CINCINNATI -- D.J. Reader knew the potential for the Cincinnati Bengals defense this year, but said it was good to see that show up right away in the season opener. Now they have a unique opportunity facing the first of a handful of backup quarterbacks they are expected to meet in the first half of the season.

The Bengals (0-1) travel to play Dallas (0-1) on Sunday, and starting quarterback Dak Prescott is out with a right thumb injury that required surgery. Cooper Rush, a fifth-year backup, is expected to start Sunday after replacing Prescott in the fourth quarter of a season-opening loss to Tampa Bay.

Cincinnati dropped an overtime loss to Pittsburgh last week, but the defense allowed just 13 points in regulation. One of the Steelers’ touchdowns came on a pick-6 when Joe Burrow tried to force a throw to Tyler Boyd on the second play of the game for the Bengals offense.

“It was good perspective of where we were, where we were in the fight against and who we were, and I think it’s a step and something to build,” Reader said. “It’s a brick we laid down. We felt like we had a good camp and coming into the season, so that kind of confirmed some little bit of things that we had questions on, but we’ve got to go out there and get more turnovers and just play a little harder to get that win.”

The Steelers had one drive longer than 50 yards and the next longest in regulation was 32 yards.

Turnovers really were the only thing missing from the Bengals’ defense, which thrived in that area during the playoffs last year. Cincinnati forced nine turnovers in four postseason games, including late ones in each of the first three rounds that helped seal victories en route to the Super Bowl.

That will again be a focus this week, though the Bengals won’t assume a backup quarterback will be more prone to mistakes. Asked if Mike White’s 400-yard passing game against them last year is a cautionary tale of that, Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Rush has his own examples to prove he shouldn’t be overlooked.

Rush threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns, including on the game-winning drive in the final two minutes, to lead Dallas to a 20-16 win over Minnesota in his lone start last year.

“You’ve seen him get into a rhythm and be able to do it,” Taylor said. “… He’s been there for five years. He’s invested in the system. He’s been with (offensive coordinator) Kellen (Moore) for a long time. He’s been with Dak for a long time so you expect him to be able to operate the offense the way that they want it operate. So there’s no guy that’s invested as he is. We expect to see a good player on Sunday and them put him in position to help their team try to be effective.”

It helps the Bengals there is some film on Rush. That’s not always the case when an injury occurs and a backup is called into action unexpectedly.

Former Dallas right tackle La’el Collins said Thursday he also provided a little intel on his old team, including a scouting report on Rush, but he has confidence in the defense “doing what they need to do.”

“He’s definitely a quality player, a great guy,” Collins said when asked his impressions of Rush. “He’s there for a reason. He can go out there and do some special things. Just like any opponent, you’ve got to make sure you’re ready to go.”

Reader doesn’t expect the Cowboys to just rely on the running game instead of leaning on their backup quarterback, though seventh-year player Ezekiel Elliott is a three-time Pro Bowler. Elliott’s production has dropped off the past two years since his last Pro Bowl season in 2019, but he topped 1,000 yards for the fourth time in his career in 2021.

Elliott, the former Ohio State running back who Dallas took fourth overall in the 2016 draft, rushed 10 times for 52 yards last week in the Cowboys’ loss to Tampa Bay.

“He still does his thing,” Reader said. “He’s so dynamic, his patience, the way he can jump in and out of gaps and there’s teams that still fall for it every single play. He’s a really good back in this league, and I don’t see too much fall-off. He’s been playing at a high level for a long time.”

The Bengals much improved their run defense last year, and Reader played a big role in that becoming a real strength of the defense now.

“It feels good, but you know we gotta go out there and do it,” Reader said. “Rush has been around that offense for a long time, he’s been there with the coordinator and there with Dak for a minute, so he’s going to throw the ball around. I don’t see too much changing, but we’ve got to do our part, just go out and do what we do every Sunday.”


Bengals at Cowboys, 4:25 p.m., Ch. 7, Ch. 12, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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