CINCINNATI — Eli Apple spat to the side, inhaled deeply and took a drag on a celebratory cigar.
The Cincinnati Bengals cornerback reveled in one of the team’s most impressive wins to date.
The Bengals dominated the Buffalo Bills and confused quarterback Josh Allen in a 27-10 win in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. When Apple was asked why Cincinnati had beaten Allen and other QBs of his caliber over the past two seasons, Apple blew out a plume of smoke, scrunched up his face and gave a definitive answer.
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“We have a mad scientist named Lou Anarumo,” Apple said, referring to the Bengals’ fourth-year defensive coordinator.
The Bengals’ latest win was yet another example of the 56-year-old Staten Island native’s defensive formula upending one of the best players in the game. Notably, Cincinnati beat Kansas City and quarterback Patrick Mahomes in three straight meetings. The Bengals are looking to extend that streak to four games in Sunday’s AFC Championship (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS).
The common ingredient in those performances was Anarumo’s willingness to experiment, tweak designs, and eventually adjust them as needed to stop high-powered offenses. As long as he can remember, he has appreciated the schematic flexibility.
“Whether in college or now in the NFL, [when] you play elite quarterbacks, you can’t give them the same image,” Anarumo told ESPN. You just keep changing it and just trying to keep those guys off balance.
Keeping opponents guessing helped the Bengals field one of the best defenses in the league in 2022. Cincinnati was sixth in the regular season in offensive points allowed, first in opponents completion percentage, and fifth in touchdowns surrendered per drive.
Those metrics are a byproduct of a pattern Anarumo perfected over his four seasons with the Bengals. He always tries to make some tweaks to find success.
Lou Anarumo is in his 11th season as an NFL coach and fourth with Cincinnati, having joined the Bengals in 2019 as defensive coordinator. Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports
ANARUMO HAS ENTERED coaching due to two men. One was his father, Lou Anarumo Sr., a former basketball player at Wagner College who eventually coached the sport. The other was Al Paturzo, Anarumo’s coach at Susan E. Wagner High School, the winningest coach in the New York Public School Athletic League.
Anarumo began his career in 1989 at the US Merchant Service Academy as a part-time running backs coach. After spending a year at Syracuse as a graduate assistant, he spent time at a few colleges, including Wagner, Harvard, Marshall, and finally Purdue. Anarumo turned pro in 2012, where he joined the Miami Dolphins staff led by head coach Joe Philbin.
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Anarumo specializes in coaching defenders. When Philbin and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle were fired in 2015, Anarumo was named the interim defensive coordinator under Dan Campbell. Anarumo spent a couple more seasons with the Dolphins and one with the New York Giants before the biggest change of his career.
When the Bengals hired Zac Taylor as head coach in 2019, he hired Anarumo as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator. Taylor worked with Anarumo in Miami and needed someone to fill the vacancy after numerous job-related names didn’t work.
“I knew Zac, I trusted Zac,” Anarumo said. “We’re good friends, among other things. They’d played really good defense here in the past and had some damn good football teams. So there was the appeal of that.”
It was also Anarumo’s chance to lead a unit of his own. But the Bengalis soon realized that the task ahead would be a difficult one. The roster, especially on defense, was filled with aging stars and needed a massive overhaul.
“You just had guys doing their thing,” said linebacker Germaine Pratt, a rookie at the time. “They don’t believe what she was doing, you know? So we got new guys.”
Over time, players like defensive tackle DJ Reader and safety Vonn Bell began to improve the defense. But the unit still struggled and finished the 2020 season 22nd in the opposition table.
Taylor remained confident in Anarumo’s vision.
“It takes time to smooth out the wrinkles in the pattern,” Taylor said. “It takes time to position the staff the way you want it. It takes time to develop the kids in the scheme. I think sometimes it just requires patience… You can see what happens when you have patience. It’s a great thing to see.”
This set the stage for what followed.
Cornerback Eli Apple had six tackles in the Bengals’ win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
OVER THE LAST two seasons, Anarumo proved Taylor’s instincts were correct. The Bengals, led by a bevy of free agents including cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and defensive end Trey Hendrickson, rounded up a solid defense, finishing 2022 sixth in points allowed (20.13 points per game) and third in Opponent’s Total QBR (47.5).
Anarumo’s ability to adapt and adapt has become evident even in big games. In the Week 17 home game against Kansas City last season, Mahomes gave the visitors a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter. But in the second half, the tables turned as the Bengals held Mahomes to no touchdowns in Cincinnati’s 34-31 win to seal the team’s first playoff berth since 2015.
Apple said Anarumo’s in-game adjustments were a major reason for Kansas City’s struggles.
“I’m just taking the easy stuff out in the middle,” Apple said. “Packing in the middle [of the field]forcing them to try and punch us deep, but taking away the deep stuff as well.”
In that game, he also earned the nickname “Mad Scientist” from gamers. He was aggressive with his game plan, including sending blitzes on downs that were atypical of the Cincinnati defense. Anarumo kept a blitz zero in his pocket until Kansas City’s last snap from scrimmage. Though the Bengals’ corners got no help, Mahomes was rocked by the pressure gaze, threw a fumble, and the Bengals stalled.
In the 2021 AFC Championship Game, Anarumo’s defense thwarted Mahomes again. The Kansas City quarterback completed just 44.4% of his passes after halftime and was intercepted in overtime by Bell, making the game-winning field goal in the 27-24 victory that sent Cincinnati to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989.
After the game ended, Bell congratulated Anarumo before asking what he was preparing next.
“It’s in the lab that he always finds something,” Bell said. “He’s thinking about something and wants to set you up for success. His work ethic is relentless. He doesn’t stop. His mind is always and always on.”
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EVERY WEEK, ANARUMO builds tailor-made packages for the next opponent. Matt Bowen, an analyst for ESPN and a former NFL defenseman, cited the example of Cincinnati switching from a maximum safety appearance to several Cover 2 lineups in the team’s divisional playoff win against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
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“That tells me it’s a coach saying we don’t have a real cover identity. Our cover identity is dictated or based on a team we play every week,” Bowen said. “That’s the sign of a good defense.”
Bowen added that in the NFL, being able to make changes on the fly is key to a team’s success. The numbers suggest that the Bengals’ defense is as good as anyone else’s in the league in this respect.
In the second half of matches dating back to the start of the 2021 season, the Bengals are second in points allowed (8.64), first in defensive efficiency in the red zone (38.7% stop rate) and third in opposing QBR (36.3 ), according to ESPN Stats & Info. In three games against the Bengals during that span, Mahomes threw zero touchdowns and two interceptions after halftime.
Anarumo’s experimentation process also indicates his success in player management.
In the week leading up to the game against the Bills, he drafted coverage targeting double-header Stefon Diggs, Buffalo’s #1 wide receiver. When the defense tried the play in practice, it was clear it wasn’t going to work. Bengals safety Jessie Bates immediately conveyed the feelings of the unit to Anarumo and was demolished.
“Being able to question your defensive coordinator is tough,” Bates said. “But he was able to open that door, have those conversations. Even if we’re wrong, he’s going to have those conversations.”
Zac Taylor was named head coach of the Bengals in 2019. He is in his fourth season after leading the Bengals to Super Bowl LVI last year. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
WHEN THE BENGALIS reached the Super Bowl last season, Anarumo and Cincinnati offensive coordinator Brian Callahan received interest in head coaching gigs. Anarumo was interviewed by the New York Giants, a team he grew up rooting for. The job ultimately went to former Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who led the Giants to the divisional round of the playoffs in his first season.
This year, Anarumo has yet to receive an interview. Taylor cited some of those laboratory qualities as to why the defensive coordinator could be a great coach.
“It’s not about ‘This is the pattern and we’re only going to do it whether it fits the boys or not,'” said Taylor. “He’s constantly evolving it to make sure we’re putting kids in a position to do the things that hit their strengths.”
While Anarumo can be fiery with his players after a bad performance, he can also be consistent during tough times. Bengals assistant coach Robert Livingston, a former scout for the team who has been on the staff since 2015, cited how Anarumo handled an alarming Week 14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in 2021.
“You sort of come on Monday — ‘Oh, this [season] has the ability to go sideways.’ And he was just adamant. And I will never forget it,” Livingston said.
As Cincinnati prepares for another AFC championship game, the number of coaches in Anarumo has increased. And while he has personal aspirations beyond Sunday’s game, he knows the team hoodie must double as his lab coat for another week.
“Every coach’s goal is to have the ability to manage their own ship at some point,” Anarumo said. “But at the end of the day, right now, what’s important is that we beat [Kansas City] Sunday. And that will be a tough task.”