Lou Anarumo and his hokey cokey Cincinnati Bengals defense have become the talk of the town. A town with Joe Burrow in it.
To solve a problem like Josh Allen, to solve a problem like Patrick Mahomes, to solve a problem like the modern off-script angle-defiant elite quarterback is to do things the Lou Anarumo way.
His art of disguise has excelled to the extent head coach-needy NFL teams have neglected to acknowledge his cauldron of tricks enough to consider him during this year’s hiring cycle. An indictment, no doubt, on them and a flawed hiring process rather than his own credentials.
He has emerged as a remedy to a Mahomesified league in which the Kansas City Chiefs gamer has burdened young quarterbacks with soaring, unassailable expectations through his anything-goes arm talent. Anarumo vs Mahomes likely takes precedence over any Joe Burrow vs Mahomes or Joe Burrow vs Steve Spagnuolo showdown heading into Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.
Eli Apple dubbed him a mad scientist. He is both scientist and architect, receptive and reactive to the league’s college-driven spread movement and the trendy proclivity of pre-snap motion, RPO innovation and the position-less asterisk to on-paper personnel groupings. With today’s offensive sleight of hand comes Anarumo’s own espionage missions. And sometimes, just sometimes, he will merely knock on the front door to tell you what he’s doing, armed with the answer for any ensuing reply.
He gave Allen and the Bills offense headaches by nullifying their downfield knockout power in Cincinnati’s Divisional Round win. Mahomes is next in his sights as they resume their defining duel, in which Anarumo boasts the upper hand.
- Wagner – Running backs coach (1989)
- Syracuse – Graduate assistant-assistant defensive backs coach (1990-1991)
- U.S. Merchant Marine Academy – Defensive coordinator/defensive backs (1992–1994)
- Harvard – Assistant head coach/defensive backs/special teams (1995–2000)
- Marshall – Defensive backs coach (2001–2003)
- Purdue – Defensive backs coach (2004–2011)
- Miami Dolphins – Defensive backs coach (2012–2017)
- Miami Dolphins – Interim defensive coordinator (2015)
- New York Giants – Defensive backs coach (2018)
- Cincinnati Bengals – Defensive coordinator (2019–present)
Where Josh Boyer’s blitz-heavy approach with the Miami Dolphins had dared Allen’s downfield aggression to beat them, Anarumo’s success was built on delaying the Bills quarterback and forcing him to temper his bombs away tendencies. Simulated pressure became seven and eight-man coverage looks, putting added stress on Allen’s progressions while, in a slightly different way to Boyer inviting shots over the top, daring him to take on dangerous traffic.
The Bengals defensive coordinator has joined in with the league’s shift towards the two-high safety shells inspired by Vic Fangio as a means of eradicating the explosive plays of 20+ yards. But it has been the way in which his unit rolls and rotates to two-high looks and handsomely-staffed zone shells that has been so effective in befuddling the league’s best and brightest under center. And, in contrast, the way he hides blitz packages in zone presentations.
Anarumo blitzed Allen just seven times on 47 drop backs (14.8 per cent) and yet managed to generate pressure on 26 of them by way of his shape-shifting. He turned heavily towards one of the staples of the Anarumo defense in the nickel fire zone pressures whereby at the snap the extra defensive back will rocket to the line of scrimmage from the second level while the weak side defensive end retreats into coverage to muddy the quarterback’s field read. There we have the ‘left foot in, right foot out’ hokey cokey of it all. It preserves the four-man rush while congesting the middle of the field as Allen looks for his hot routes.
A defensive back can hint at zone coverage by aligning with his backside pointing to the sideline, or point to man-on-man by shadowing the motioning receiver across the line of scrimmage or nod to the blitz by lining up in a sprint-start stance, but Anarumo does his utmost to veil intentions by having his creeper pressure man, often a Mike Hilton or Vonn Bell, unassumingly amble across the second level before exploding into life from a non-static start at the snap. Emphasis on the ‘creep’ in his creeper pressure.
January 29, 2023, 11:30pm
A key trait to Anarumo’s fire zone pressures can also be the width it creates up front, the angle from which the defensive back darts helping limit the modern mobile quarterback’s ability to roll out of the pocket and freelance in pursuit of an off-platform throw. He will also pull one of Sam Hubbard or Trey Hendrickson off the edge and turn them into a spy, be it to purposely flush a quarterback out of the pocket and into their laps or to again contribute to blocking quite routes underneath. Hence the importance against an Allen or a Mahomes that are as dangerous as any passer in the league outside the pocket.
The pre-to-post snap transformations come with layers upon layers upon layers: Anarumo will simulate a corner blitz from one side while offering a single-high coverage presentation, before dropping said corner and the adjacent defensive end into the second level at the snap while sending the opposite side corner in pressure off the edge, filling the vacated half of the field by rolling his high safety across in an inverted Cover 2 and pulling linebacker Logan Wilson high while Germaine Pratt serves as the hook/curl floater. His own illusion of complexity.
At times he will complement zone coverage across the board by lining up one of his more physical defensive backs in press man coverage against the offense’s top weapon, a Travis Kelce for example, and ask his DB to win his physicality battle mid-route.
Anarumo will also occasionally put a defining onus on the athleticism and instincts of Wilson and Pratt as his two lone linebackers in extra DB packages by lining both up as A-gap muggers at the line of scrimmage before dragging them back at the snap to marshal any crossing routes designed for quick-release concepts.
He was the star of the show as the Bengals beat the Chiefs in last season’s AFC title game to reach the Super Bowl, Anarumo’s second half answer to Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Kelce being to pull seven or eight men into coverage and suffocate some of the most accomplished offensive spacing and route concepts in the league.
Trailing 21-10 at half-time, Anarumo came out and dropped eight or more defenders into coverage on 45.5 per cent of dropbacks across the second half and overtime period in a rise from just 23.8 per cent in the first half. In those instances Mahomes went three of eight passing for 13 yards and an interception while being sacked twice as the Chiefs offense stalled.
The Bengals had been beaten by two notable chunk plays in the first half, a 44-yard completion to Mecole Hardman and a 33-yard completion to Hill. On the first to Hardman Cincinnati had presented quarters coverage before rolling into a one-high safety in Jessie Bates III, who would be frozen centrally by Kelce’s seam route while Hardman beat Chidobe Awuzie one-on-one with his out-and-up. On the second to Hill the Bengals presented a one-high safety look in nickel with all other DBs lined up in press coverage other than Apple in soft coverage on the Chiefs pass-catcher, who would exploit the extra runway and beat his man with a double move on the deep over route.
Anarumo sought to switch things up with 13 seconds left in the half when he dialled up match quarters coverage with wide 5-tech and 9-tech rushers anchoring a four-man pressure in order to contain Mahomes in the pocket, with Wilson retreating into coverage to bracket Byron Pringle’s over route and Pratt spying the Chiefs quarterback to deny the escape on the weak side. Unfortunately for the Bengals Apple would bite on the in-and-out from Hill and ultimately draw a pass interference penalty after seeing Mahomes overcook his pass to the corner of the end zone.
On the opening drive of the second half Anarumo tackled a Chiefs second-and-six by dropping eight into coverage with Pratt as the hook/curl buffer in the middle of the field, where his presence proved key in delaying Mahomes as he targeted Hill, being shadowed by Hilton, on the deep over.
Then followed a familiar theme of Bell being deployed as the ‘robber’ out of Cover 2 (two-high) by dropping down into the hole last minute to disrupt dig and crossing routes underneath as another variation on Anarumo’s blend of zone and man.
Mahomes and the Chiefs were not dumb to the seven and eight man coverages – they just could not find a resolution to beating them, even with their alien quarterback’s preposterous skewed-angle freelancing expertise. Late in the third they turned to a condensed formation in a bid to toss the guessing game back to Anarumo, who responded by stacking the box in the face of a wide zone movement before rotating into Cover 2 and watching BJ Hill throw up his big arms to snag a bonus interception at the line of scrimmage.
There is a blockbuster feel to Anarumo’s defense as he favours blanketing every route and every receiver over supreme pressure up front, challenging a Mahomes to produce the best of Mahomes by dissecting the tightest of throwing lanes or spotting and punishing the rare blown assignment, and challenging a Kelce to produce the best of Kelce by way of the best head feint, hip swivel and hand usage on an out route in the league. Beat him, and he will holds his hands up and say ‘fair play’.
How he replicates or adapts previous game plans for Mahomes this weekend comes with added intrigue in the wake of the Chiefs man’s high-ankle sprain. Do you purposely flush him out of the pocket and put his uncertain mobility to the test?
The mad scientist is brewing his next cocktail of chaos, every bit of which is needed against the NFL’s best quarterback.
Over to you, Lou.
The NFL playoffs continue this weekend with Championship Sunday. Watch both games live on Sky Sports NFL on Sunday night, with Cincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs kicking off at 11.30pm.