‘Mad scientist’ Lou Anarumo is the man behind Bengals defense
CINCINNATI — Eli Apple spat to the side, took a deep breath, and took a drag on a celebratory cigar.
The Cincinnati Bengals cornerback basked in one of the team’s most impressive victories to date.
The Bengals dominated the Buffalo Bills and confused quarterback Josh Allen with a 27-10 victory in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. When asked why Cincinnati had beaten Allen and other QBs of his caliber over the past few seasons, Apple exhaled a puff of smoke, grimaced, and delivered a definitive answer.
“We have a mad scientist named Lou Anarumo,” Apple said, referring to the Bengals’ fourth-year defensive coordinator.
The Bengals’ recent win was another example of the 56-year-old Staten Island native’s defensive formula turning one of the game’s best players upside down. Most notably, Cincinnati has stunned Kansas City and quarterback Patrick Mahomes in three straight encounters. The Bengals are looking to extend that streak to four games in the AFC Championship on Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS).
The common ingredient in these feats was Anarumo’s willingness to experiment, tweak designs, and eventually adapt as needed to stop high-profile attacks. For as long as he can remember, he has valued schematic flexibility.
“Whether in college or now in the NFL, [when] They play elite quarterbacks, you just can’t give them the same picture,” Anarumo told ESPN. “You just have to keep changing it and just trying to throw these guys off balance.”
Keeping opponents guessing helped the Bengals field one of the best defenses in the league in 2022. Cincinnati was sixth in offensive points allowed, leading in opposing completion rate, and fifth in touchdowns given per drive during the regular season.
Those metrics are a by-product of a scheme Anarumo refined during his four seasons with the Bengals. He’s always trying to tinker something to be successful.
ANARUMO ENTERS Coaching because of 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, who was the top coach in New York’s 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 as a research assistant at Syracuse, he spent time at a number of colleges including Wagner, Harvard, Marshall, and finally Purdue. Anarumo rose to the pros in 2012, where he joined a Miami Dolphins team led by coach Joe Philbin.
Anarumo specializes in coaching defenders. When Philbin and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle were fired in 2015, Anarumo was named interim defensive coordinator under Dan Campbell. Anarumo spent a few more seasons with the Dolphins and one with the New York Giants before making the biggest move of his career.
When the Bengals hired Zac Taylor as head coach in 2019, he hired Anarumo as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator. Taylor was working with Anarumo in Miami and needed someone to fill the position after numerous names associated with the job didn’t work.
“I knew Zac, trusted Zac,” Anarumo said. “We’re good friends, among other things. They had played really good defense here in the past and had some damn good football teams.
It was also Anarumo’s chance to lead his own unit. But the Bengals quickly realized the task at hand would be difficult. The squad, particularly in defence, was filled with aging stars and in need of a major overhaul.
“You only had guys doing their own thing,” said linebacker Germaine Pratt, then a rookie. “You don’t believe what he did, you know? So we hired new people.”
Over time, players like defensive tackle DJ Reader and safety Vonn Bell began to improve defense. But the unit still struggled, ending the 2020 season in 22nd place in opposing standings.
Taylor remained confident in Anarumo’s vision.
“It takes time to iron out the creases in the plan,” Taylor said. “It takes time to place staff the way you want them. It takes time for people to grow into the scheme. I think sometimes that just takes patience… You can see what happens if you have patience. It’s a great thing to see.”
This laid the foundation for what followed.
ABOUT THE LAST Over two seasons, Anarumo has proven Taylor’s instincts were right. The Bengals, led by a bevy of free agents including cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and defensive end Trey Hendrickson, rounded out a solid defense to finish sixth in points allowed (20.13 points per game) and third in 2022 Place in opponent’s overall QBR (47.5).
Anarumo’s ability to adapt and adapt was also shown in big matches. In the Week 17 home game against Kansas City last season, Mahomes led the visitors 21-7 early in the second quarter. But the tide turned in the second half when the Bengals held Mahomes without a touchdown in Cincinnati’s 34-31 win that sealed the team’s first playoff berth since 2015.
Apple said Anarumo’s in-game adjustments are a big reason for the fighting in Kansas City.
“I’m just taking away the easy stuff above the middle,” Apple said. “Grab the middle [of the field]so they try to hit us deep but also take away the deep stuff.
It was also in this game that he earned his nickname “Mad Scientist” from the players. He was aggressive with his game plan, including sending strobes on downs uncharacteristic of Cincinnati’s defense. Anarumo had pocketed a zero blitz by Kansas City’s final snap from scrimmage. Although the Bengals’ corners had no help, Mahomes was rocked by the pressure look, threw a miss and the Bengals got a stop.
In the 2021 AFC Championship game, Anarumo’s defense again thwarted Mahomes. The Kansas City quarterback completed just 44.4% of his passes after halftime and was intercepted in overtime by Bell, who scored the game-winning field goal in the 27-24 win that sent Cincinnati to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989 prepared.
After the game ended, Bell congratulated Anarumo before asking what he was cooking next.
“He’s in the lab and he’s always coming up with new ideas,” Bell said. “He has something on his mind and he wants to empower you to be successful. His work ethic is relentless. It never stops. His mind just keeps going and always on to the next.”
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EVERY WEEK, ANARUMO builds tailor-made packages for the upcoming opponent. Matt Bowen, an ESPN analyst and former NFL defenseman, led the example when Cincinnati switched from a single-high safety look to multiple cover-2 formations in the team’s playoff win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
“That tells me that’s a coach saying we don’t have a real reporting identity – our reporting identity is dictated or assumed by a team we play each week,” Bowen said. “That’s the sign of a good defense.”
Bowen added that in the NFL, the ability to make adjustments on the fly is key to a team’s success. The numbers suggest the Bengals’ defense is as good as any in the league in this regard.
In the second halves of games dating back to the start of the 2021 season, the Bengals rank second in points allowed (8.64), first in defensive red zone efficiency (38.7% stop rate) and third in the opposing QBR (36.3). ESPN Stats and Information. In the three games against the Bengals in that span, Mahomes has thrown zero touchdowns and two interceptions after halftime.
Anarumo’s process of experimentation also points to his success in dealing with players.
The week before the Bills game, he did coverage aimed at doubling down on Stefon Diggs, Buffalo’s No. 1 wide receiver. When the defense tried the game in practice, it was clear it wasn’t going to work. Bengals safety Jessie Bates immediately conveyed the unit’s opinion to Anarumo and she was scrapped.
“It’s difficult to question your defense coordinator,” Bates said. “But he was able to open that door, have those conversations. Even if we’re wrong, he’ll have these conversations.”
IF THE BENGALS reached the Super Bowl last season, Anarumo and Cincinnati offensive coordinator Brian Callahan received interest for head-coaching appearances. Anarumo was interviewed by the New York Giants, a team he grew up with. The job eventually went to former Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who led the Giants to the Divisional round of the playoffs in his freshman season.
Anarumo has not yet received an interview this year. Taylor cited some of those lab-like qualities to explain why the defensive coordinator could make a great coach.
“It’s not like, ‘This is the pattern and we’re going to just do it whether the guys like it or not,'” Taylor said. “He’s constantly evolving it to make sure we’re empowering the guys to do the things that are their strengths.”
While Anarumo can be fiery with his players after a poor performance, he can remain steadfast even when times are tough. Bengals assistant coach Robert Livingston, a former team scout who has been with the team since 2015, cited how Anarumo coped with an alarming Week 14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in 2021.
“You kind of come in on Monday – ‘Oh, that [season] has a chance to go sideways.’ And he was just unshakable. And I’ll never forget that,” Livingston said.
As Cincinnati prepares for another AFC championship game, Anarumo’s coaching roster has increased. And while he has personal ambitions beyond Sunday’s game, he knows his team-issued hoodie will have to serve as a lab coat for another week.
“It’s every coach’s goal to eventually have the chance to lead their own ship,” Anarumo said. “But at the end of the day it’s important now that we hit [Kansas City] On Sunday. And that’s going to be a big challenge.”
https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/35532675/mad-scientist-lou-anarumo-man-bengals-defense ‘Mad scientist’ Lou Anarumo is the man behind Bengals defense