Bengals’ Reader in Watson’s corner, except Sunday

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle DJ Reader plans to take former teammate Deshaun Watson to his barber on Saturday so they can catch up over a haircut.

By the following afternoon, their friendship will be put aside as they compete in the “Battle of Ohio.” The Bengals host Watson and the Browns on Sunday at Paycor Stadium.

Reader and Watson played together with the Houston Texans during the 2017 through 2019 seasons, and this will mark their first time facing each other. Neither player was available for the first “Battle of Ohio” matchup on Halloween. Reader was out with a knee injury. Watson, who signed a massive contract with the Browns this offseason, was suspended for the first 11 games after more than two dozen female massage therapists accused him of sexual harassment and assault.

Watson’s return to play has come with mixed reactions. He received some boos and some support in his Cleveland debut, but Reader -- not speaking in relation to Watson’s legal situation -- said he has a good relationship with his former teammate.

“That’s my boy,” Reader said. “That’s one of my good friends. I can’t wait to see him out there, get to compete against each other. … That’s my guy, so good relationship.”

Reader remains in Watson’s football corner, except Sunday. He doesn’t plan to talk ball when they hang out Saturday, and they will shake hands after the game.

Watson, who sat out of the 2021 season and requested a trade from Houston, looked rusty in his return to the field last week, completing just 54.5 percent of his passes for 131 yards and no touchdowns in the Browns’ 27-14 win over the Texans on Sunday. He had one interception, one sack and a quarterback rating of 53.4, and Reader wouldn’t mind seeing those kinds of numbers one more week.

“Hopefully (he’s rusty) a couple more weeks, but you know, I always cheer for him,” Reader said. “That’s my brother I went through a lot of battles with that guy. Saw him grow up. I know where he comes from. I know what cloth he’s cut from, so I just want to see him do well. But we’re gonna get after him on Sunday.”

Watson’s play likely won’t be as crucial as Reader’s. The Browns offense still centers around running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and the Bengals don’t expect that to change with Watson in the mix.

Reader is the Bengals’ big run stopper. He might not be making the tackles, but he plugs a big hole and frees the linebackers up to make plays. Chubb still has managed two of the biggest rushing totals against the Bengals since 2020, running for 124 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-30 win on Sept. 17, 2020, and finishing with 137 yards and two scores on 14 carries in the first matchup last season.

The Browns have the fourth best rushing offense with 156.0 yards per game. Chubb has 1,119 yards rushing (second most in the NFL) and a league-high 12 rushing touchdowns and 12 carries of 20 yards or more.

“The back is one of the best we’ve seen, maybe the best in the league,” Reader said. “He’s up there, just his contact balanced, the way he runs, how he runs through the gap. The offensive line does a good job of locating and blocking well together as a team so it kind of makes the run game a little difficult. And then they’re committed to it. A lot of teams aren’t committed to running. You stop them a few times, they won’t do it. They’re committed to it.”

Cleveland’s offensive line features two Pro Bowl offensive linemen in guards Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio. Teller didn’t play the last matchup, but the Browns amassed 172 yards on 44 carries, including 101 yards on 23 attempts from Chubb.

Watson adds to what the Browns can do on the ground as more of a running threat than Jacoby Brissett. He rushed for 444 yards in 2020 during his third Pro Bowl season in 2020 when he also threw for a career-best 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns.

Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard doesn’t expect the Browns will suddenly “put it all on Deshaun’s hands,” but coach Zac Taylor said the offense likely will evolve as Watson gets back into the flow of things.

“They’ve established themselves as a really good offense in this league for a long time,” Taylor said. “There’s staples that they’ve got, that they lean on — still have a great offensive line, great back, really talented receivers — things that have been there identity for a long time. I’m sure there’s give and take on things they want to continue to evolve with, with him and things that they’ve hung their hat and been successful over multiple different teams and coaching staff and coach (Kevin) Stefanski and (offensive line coach) Bill Callahan and all those guys, (offensive coordinator) Alex Van Pelt, they’ve been successful doing this stuff for a long time and I’m sure that’s still a big part of what they want to do.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Browns at Bengals, 1 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1290, 1530, 95.7, 102.7, 104.7

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