Lou Anarumo: Cincinnati's Defensive Wizard

Cincinnati Bengals DC Lou Anarumo
Cincinnati Bengals DC Lou Anarumo
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.

Comments

18 comments, Last at 28 Jan 2023, 8:59am

#1 by rh1no // Jan 25, 2023 - 10:41am

Great analysis of the best performance from this Bengals defensive unit that plays like more than the sum of its parts.

On this week's livestream, I believe Aaron mentioned that Cincinnati's defense actually played better against good teams and played worse against bad teams. This tracks with what I've seen watching them; they gave up more points to the Browns (32), Saints (26), and Stealers (30) than to the Chiefs (24), Bills (10), and Dolphins (15). Obviously, part of the reason for Miami's low offensive output was the concussion Tua suffered during the game, but Cincinnati's defense was having their way with him before his injury.

Do you have any inights into the variance in the quality of play from the Bengals defense? Matchup issues? Playing down to their opponents? Peaking at the right time?

Points: 3

#2 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 25, 2023 - 10:49am

It seems like you can run on Cincinnati and so correspondingly they struggle with teams which are less QB-dominant.

That suggests some success with KC, but is a really ill-omen for playing SF or Philly.

Points: 2

#3 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 25, 2023 - 11:52am

QB-dominant isn't the word, maybe QB-reliant? KC, Buffalo, and Miami ask more of their QBs after the snap, where Anarumo can confuse things and make them hold. If you give a QB a really simple assignment then maybe he'll just ignore all that deception and rip. Allen was pumping all over the place because he couldn't figure out what he was seeing.

As for Tua, I will maintain to my deathbed that he was concussed vs. Buffalo four days earlier.

Points: 2

#5 by rh1no // Jan 25, 2023 - 12:03pm

That's a really good insight. The Bengals gave up 172 rushing yards against the Browns and 228 against the Saints, though only 102 against Pittsburgh; Cincinnati gifted the Stealers short fields with two interceptions and poor kick return coverage, allowing them to rack up points without giving up lots of yards.

Interestingly enough, Cincinnati shot out to an early lead against Buffalo, KC, and Miami, which put pressure on those teams to abandon the run. The Chiefs stayed disciplined and had some success on the ground with runs and Mahomes scrambles, something the Bills and Fins could not do.

I agree that the 49ers are a bad matchup for the Bengals, but I think Cincinnati can force Philly into a shootout where the field is tilted in their favor. Hurts isn't as good a runner as Lamar Jackson, nor is he as good a passer as Patrick Mahomes, and the Bengals defense has had success stopping both of those signal-callers.

Not sure Anarumo can out-scheme Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers have too many weapons and I their playmakers have more than enough talent to beat our linebackers and corners 1-on-1.

Points: 2

#6 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 25, 2023 - 12:34pm

Philly will run to get back into games. They did that against Indy, DC, and NO. They aren't afraid to go heavy even when down multiple scores.

Points: 3

#10 by rapierma // Jan 25, 2023 - 2:10pm

Bengals Titans Henry 17 car, 38 yds

https://www.espn.com/nfl/game/_/gameId/401437865

 

Bengals Browns Chubb 14 car, 34 yds

https://www.espn.com/nfl/game/_/gameId/401437890

Points: 3

#17 by Gabe Amare // Jan 26, 2023 - 10:48am

I thought there was something with Cincy's Home v Away defensive DVOA splits. Can someone pull that from here: https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/nfl/home-road/2022/defense

Points: 0

#4 by Tom Tulpa // Jan 25, 2023 - 12:01pm

What a great breakdown, this game makes much more sense to me now. Thanks.

Points: 5

#7 by anandshah // Jan 25, 2023 - 1:15pm

Great analysis and explanation. Thanks for helping me understand the game better.

Points: 3

#8 by reddwarf // Jan 25, 2023 - 1:51pm

Great analysis.  While no QB is purely one thing or another, I think you can parse them into two main groups:  pre-snap readers and post snap progression.  A pre-snap reader would be a Manning, Brady, or Brees.  For the most part, they know the play design and look at the defense and pretty much know they can eliminate certain routes from consideration and know where they want to go before the snap.  Post snap guys (like Allen, Prescott, or Russel Wilson) are either not very good at pre-snap reads, simply don't like them or are coached to read progressions, and tend to look for a play post-snap by checking route progressions.  The line about Allen "hunting" the corner route is a perfect description-with off coverage pre-snap a guy like Manning would have crossed the corner route off before the snap and been able to react to the all out blitz by dumping to the flat.  A corner route can beat tight man, cover 1, or cover 2, but is much less useful against off man or cover 3/4, which is what Cincy was showing.  I'm not saying one type of QB is better than the other-they each have advantages and disadvantages (and Mahomes is some sort of alien being who apparently is adept at both), but it seems to be there.  I think the post-snap hunters are more likely to generate big plays for example, but you can confuse them more easily because they aren't instinctively trying to "take what the defense gives you".  If you watch any of Kurt Warner's breakdowns of QB play on YouTube he's always talking about recognizing the defense and knowing what called routes WON'T work either pre-snap or in identifying the key defender and identifying what won't work from the the first couple steps they take.  Again, so you can get to the part of the play design that gives you a chance as fast as possible.

Anyway, yet another reason I'm not fond of the Sean Payton to Denver idea.  His QB guru work was with Brees, whose only similarity to Wilson is being on the shorter side.  But their play style couldn't be more different and I have serious doubts Wilson can be turned into a pre-snap reader this late in his career.

Points: 3

#9 by serutan // Jan 25, 2023 - 2:06pm

Anyway, yet another reason I'm not fond of the Sean Payton to Denver idea.

  Agreed, but teams/media seem to think Payton has this foolproof magic wand that will instantly put their team in the SB.  His time in NO since their SB win would IMO argue against any major turnaround, regardless of where he winds up.

Points: 1

#12 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jan 25, 2023 - 2:41pm

Don't agree with that separation at all. Especially Dak who's biggest strengths is pre snap recognition.

Points: 0

#11 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 25, 2023 - 2:34pm

FWIW, Mitchell Schwartz' analysis of the final play listed (Hilton's blitz from the strong side) is that Brown the RT was responsible and failed to read it: https://twitter.com/MitchSchwartz71/status/1617541007041757184?cxt=HHwWgIDQ5bm-1PIsAAAA

In looking at the All 22 (in the link) I'm not sure how Brown could have played this differently. Sample plays it slow enough that Brown has to stand there and wait for him to commit. If Brown steps out to take Hilton any earlier, Sample darts right through the B-gap.

Points: 2

#13 by rh1no // Jan 25, 2023 - 4:27pm

Agreed.

I mean, I get that Schwartz is technically right ... who else besides the right tackle would be responsible for identifying and blocking the corner on the blitz from 6 yards deep in the slot? But context is key here, and the context is that the Bengals had been disguising their guys blitzing and falling back into coverage so well all day that it earned Hilton the half-step advantage he needed to get home on this play. 

The Bengals website has a great write-up on Hilton's play yesterday with a breakdown of how Hilton disrupted multiple plays on this drive. Just a couple of plays earlier, Hilton blitzed from the slot, positioning himself based on Cam Sample's leverage:

"I saw Cam Sample go inside. I knew Cam, with his leverage, was going to (funnel Allen) out to me. I tried not over pursue, stayed outside, contained and forced him to throw it."

You can see something similar on the slot corner blitz shown in this article. Sample lines up on the outside of the right tackle and steps into him as the ball is snapped, forcing the tackle to commit to his position and focus his attention on Sample. Then Sample cuts inside right as Hilton approaches and by the time the tackle adjusts, it's too late. 

The guard and center are doubled up on BJ Hill, so if the tackle waits for the corner blitz and lets Sample run free, Sample is going to get a good shot at taking down Allen.

Perfect play from the offensive line here buys Allen maybe another second to realize his only option is checking the ball down to the receiver for 5-7 yards. Late in the fourth quarter and down three scores, that's still not a great outcome for the Bills.

Points: 0

#15 by Sifter // Jan 25, 2023 - 7:12pm

The comment that stood out to me was in example 2, when talking about the LBs lined up close to the line of scrimmage, and saying how this forces the O-line to play five one-on-one matchups.  I'm interested why this may not happen more often?  Seems like a good advantage for the defense if you can force an offense to play a certain way.  Would also be a great tool to isolate your best pass rusher/worst protector and make sure they are one-on-one the majority of the time.

Thanks Derrik!

Points: 1

#18 by Derrik Klassen // Jan 26, 2023 - 7:21pm

I would say a lot of the best defenses do try to do stuff like this. Even SF, though very different structurally, does a lot of the same type of stuff on third downs. Miami, for example, also loved this type of stuff. 

That said, part of why it may not always work this way is it requires the offense to be in a formation with no attached tight end. If the offense has a tight end attached, they have the numbers advantage again and can therefore slide the protection one way or the other. The defense may still get the offense to "waste" protectors by dropping guys back out, but if the offense has a six-man surface and can slide, at least one side will be more sound and not as prone to ugly 1-v-1s. 

The offense also can still choose to slide from a five-man surface and ask the running back to handle the A gap that the center slides away from. It's riskier and requires a stout back you know can handle it, but it can work. Some teams will even shift the back up directly into the A gap before the snap (i.e. Sean McVay's Rams). The Bills don't like asking much of their backs in protection, though, which is part of why it's more likely to work against an offense like the Bills than some others. 

Lastly, I'd say these types of pressure looks can leave you more exposed to quick passes outside. Just harder to get those guys dropping out into the flat than to get them right back into the middle. 

Hope this was what you were looking for. Thank you for reading!

Points: 1

#16 by Raiderfan // Jan 26, 2023 - 6:49am

“who else besides the right tackle would be responsible for identifying and blocking the corner on the blitz from 6 yards deep in the slot?”

The quarterback.  Given the look, the RT goes to the most dangerous rusher, i.e. the one closest to the quarterback.

So the QB should identify it and throw to the hot receiver.

I don’t follow Twitter, but I watch The QB School by JT O’Sullivan.

Points: 1

#19 by Lebo // Jan 28, 2023 - 8:59am

Can anyone confirm whether Josh Allen is asked to read only half the field? In the few games I've seen him play (especially the season opener, from memory), I've not seen him scan both sides of the field on a given play. Perhaps it's because he doesn't get far enough through his progressions to get to the other side of the field? But it seemed to me that Buffalo's scheme just didn't ask him to do so.

If that's the case (that Allen makes only half-field reads), can someone please explain what the offensive limitations of this are, and what the defense can do to expose these limitations?

Thanks!

Points: 0

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