CINCINNATI — After the Cincinnati Bengals held Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills to just 10 points in their divisional round game Sunday, cornerback Eli Apple offered one simple explanation for why the defense has been so successful against the league’s top quarterbacks.
“Because we’ve got a mad scientist named Lou Anarumo,” Apple said.
Anarumo, the Bengals’ fourth-year defensive coordinator, has developed a reputation for his game plans, in-game adjustments and ability to break down the opponents’ top weapons. That was on display as Cincinnati held the Bills ― the league’s second-highest scoring offense — to their lowest scoring output of the season, and it will factor in again when the Bengals play the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC title at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Bengals have beaten Kansas City three times in the past 13 months. They will try to make it four straight Sunday against the top-scoring and most explosive offense in the league.
“The Bills were cooking with gas coming into our game scoring 30-something points per game,” Anarumo said. “All these coaches are good, obviously, coach Reid and EB (Eric Bieniemy) do a great job over there in Kansas City and Patrick (Mahomes) with their scheme, so it just heightens it, especially there. You know it’s a little bit calmer for us when we play on the road because it’s quiet, we can communicate. That helps us a little bit. It’s obviously harder on our offense, but we get a chance to talk a little bit more to each other on the field.”
Anarumo seems to have developed a blue print on how to beat Mahomes, but he said there’s no set secret. The Bengals have done it in different ways each time they’ve met the Chiefs these past two seasons.
Cincinnati rallied from a 21-10 deficit in the second half of last year’s AFC title game with the help of an interception by B.J. Hill that set up a touchdown in the third quarter. Vonn Bell’s interception in overtime paved the way for Evan McPherson’s game-winning field goal. Mahomes had just 55 yards passing in the second half and overtime combined.
The Bengals won in similar fashion in Week 17 of the 2021 season when they held Kansas City to a field goal in the second half and rallied for a 34-31 win on McPherson’s walk-off game-winning field goal. Mahomes had just 50 yards passing in the second half, but there were no turnovers in that game.
In the Dec. 4 meeting this season, the Bengals also had to come from behind. Germaine Pratt forced Travis Kelce to fumble at the end of a catch in the fourth quarter, and the Bengals drove 53 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with a little less than nine minutes left.
“They are such a great team, I don’t know that it’s ‘We are going to do this and this is going to work,’” Anarumo said. “We’ll just kind of get feel for how the game is going and trying to adjust as it goes on to what their new little schemes are and stuff.”
Anarumo laughed at the idea he’s a “mad scientist” coming up with ways to stop top quarterbacks.
“I don’t know about all that,” Anarumo said. “I appreciate it. It’s funny. My kids get a kick out of that one. I say the thing all the time, because it’s the truth, but our guys play collective team defense and they understand the greater vision, the greater picture of what we’re trying to do. You should hear them on the plane like Sam Hubbard talking about pushing the run to the cloud corner. What defensive end says that? They’re just constantly talking about what or how things should be done on the sideline, in the locker room before the game — let’s overcommunicate. Germaine Pratt sending that message before the game and on the sideline. I think that goes a long way, just the little things. They understand what we’re trying to get done.”
The Bengals have done it without so-called stars in the secondary. Apple was on the verge of potentially being benched when cornerback Chidobe Awuzie tore his ACL, but he stepped up since then and rookie Cam Taylor-Britt joined him as the other starter and steadily has improved.
Taylor-Britt allowed just three catches for 20 yards on six targets Sunday at Buffalo, and Apple surrendered four catches for 74 yards on seven targets, while the Bengals held star receiver Stefon Diggs to just 35 yards on four catches with 10 targets. Both players had key pass breakups. Taylor-Britt recovered after getting beat by Gabe Davis to bat down a third-down pass late in the third quarter, then had an interception to seal the 27-10 win with a minute left. Apple broke up a fourth-down pass intended for Davis in the end zone with about 7:30 left.
Apple said the Bengals are at their best when the pass rushers are getting pressure on the quarterback, like they were Sunday with Allen. Taylor-Britt noted the key in the secondary is just being physical and frustrating the receivers.
Anarumo said both will be key against Mahomes and the Chiefs.
“I think it’s the pass rush and the coverage kinda working together, whether that be a three-man rush and saturating the coverage, or vice versa where we’re adding a guy to the rush and the rush getting there and the coverage holding up,” Anarumo said. “I think a combination of that, just those pieces working together.”
Bengals at Chiefs, 6:30 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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