Lou Anarumo: Cincinnati's Defensive Wizard
NFL Conference Championship - There isn't a defense better at adapting to its opponent than the Cincinnati Bengals. Whether it's changing his fronts, moving key chess pieces around, or majoring in different coverages based on the matchup, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo almost always finds the right concoction of tactics to wear down opposing offenses. That doesn't make them the fiercest defense in the league—the 49ers, for example, have a different gear when it comes to star power—but it does give the Bengals a chance in each and every game. That's usually all the support Joe Burrow and the offense need to ensure a victory.
The Buffalo Bills offense felt Anarumo's wrath on Sunday. Pressure, and the illusion of pressure, was the Bengals' weapon of choice in slaying Josh Allen. As exciting as the Bills offense can be, it isn't necessarily a sound and efficient unit, a problem rooted both in Allen's style and the structure of the offense. The Bills are prone to having the bottom fall out and surviving only on splash plays. That's fine in the regular season, but it's a tough needle to thread in the postseason against elite teams. Anarumo threw curveball after curveball at the Bills offense to test their discipline, and the Bills went down swinging.
Anarumo didn't wait to unleash hell. The Bengals sent pressure on the first play of the game. Allen, not necessarily a pre-snap savant, failed to handle it properly. In this example, the Bills motion wideout Isaiah McKenzie (6) from left to right before returning him to the left on a swing route. When this play is drawn up, the ball is supposed to go to him, but Allen has to be more aware of what the Bengals are doing. Safety Vonn Bell (24) rolls down before the snap to match McKenzie's motion, but more importantly, to get close to the line of scrimmage for his blitz since McKenzie's motion is a good indicator that the snap is coming. Bell's blitz, as well as the strongside linebacker, create a void in the right flat where Allen can flip the ball, but Allen misses the read completely and throws to McKenzie, who gets swarmed for a minimal gain.
On third down of the following drive, the Bengals showed a pressure look, but bailed out of it. The Bengals aligned with three down linemen and two linebackers mugged up, one in the weak A gap (outside the center) and one in the strong B gap (outside the guard). This more or less forces the Bills to respect all five rushers and play five one-on-ones without sliding one way or the other. Both mugged players back out at the snap, though, leaving both tackles and the center in one-on-one matchups while the short middle of the field gets muddied up with extra bodies. The extra traffic over the middle takes away the Bills' passing concept, buying just enough time for defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) to whoop left tackle Dion Dawkins. Allen's desperate pass attempt hits the ground and the Bills go three-and-out for the second time in a row.
Another tweak was thrown into the mix to kick off the next drive. The Bengals start this play with Bell as the down safety in a strong rotation over the tight end. As soon as Allen moves his hands up to call for the snap, both Bell and the nickel corner to the other side of the formation creep up to show pressure. Now both sides are under threat. Even if Allen wanted to check the protection, it would have been a mission trying to sort that one out. It was only an illusion, though. Bell comes on his pressure off the tight end side, but the nickel bounces back into coverage, accompanied by the weak defensive end popping off the line of scrimmage. The end product is a four-man creeper pressure out of Tampa-2, with the field side playing 2-Invert as the cornerback takes the deep half. Allen tries to throw into Bell's void, but the Bengals still have seven men in coverage and have the numbers to take everything away. Allen had to eat the play for a 3-yard sack.
The variety didn't stop there. Of course it didn't. We're talking about an Anarumo game plan here.
On this first-and-10, the Bills come out in a condensed set. Condensed sets, while useful for creating space on the perimeter and picks against man coverage, can leave an offense exposed to blitzes. The defense gets to pack all its bodies into a tight area and it can be tough to block everything up, especially with no attached tight end like the Bills are aligned here. The Bengals lean all the way into it and send the house, bringing seven rushers. Had Allen seen the all-out blitz immediately, both Stefon Diggs (bottom) and Gabe Davis (top) were open in the flat. Allen hesitates, though, because he starts the play hunting for the corner route and trying to move the safety. By the time Allen throws to Diggs, two Bengals defenders are in his face to knock the pass down.
All of those examples were from the first half. There were a handful of others, too, but we don't have all day here. Anarumo overwhelmed Allen from the jump and got him to play the rest of the game uncomfortably. Allen started seeing ghosts in coverage and stopped playing with the same confidence he usually does. Anarumo had done what he came to accomplish by then. That allowed the Bengals to lean more on standard rushes and two-high shells for the remainder of the game, only selectively mixing in pressures from there. Those handful of second-half pressures still gave Allen fits, though.
In the fourth quarter, Anarumo turned back to his creeper pressures. The twist in this case is how deep the add-on rusher came from. Nickel cornerback Mike Hilton (21) starts six yards off the ball while aligned over the No. 2 receiver (middle) to the trips side. He's a good distance away from the quarterback, much farther than most blitzers would ever be sent from. Despite the massive runway, neither Allen nor right tackle Spencer Brown catch Hilton in time. Hilton comes off the edge nearly untouched to force an incompletion that was nearly (and initially ruled as) a strip-sack.
Allen was never allowed peace in this game. The Bengals attacked his tendency to overlook and override pre-snap tells. Allen didn't have the discipline to change his stripes in the moment and handle the blitzes without freestyling, and the structure of the offense did very little to change and add answers in pass protection. The Bills want to get five receivers out in the pattern as often as possible, but the Bengals found ways to abuse their light protections while still covering properly. Mix all of that together with the Bills' unwillingness and ineptitude when it comes to running the ball, and you get an offense that has no firm ground to stand on—in heavy snow conditions, no less.
That's what the Bengals defense can do. They find the way an offense least wants to play, and they bend their play style to fit that mold. What the Bengals defense lacks in star talent, they make up for bountifully by being a cohesive 11-man unit. It's a formula that is equal parts sharp play-calling and having smart, tough, adaptable personnel with no glaring weaknesses. They're not quite an elite unit, but they have the right stuff to take Cincinnati all the way.