'Mad scientist' Lou Anarumo is the man behind Bengals' stingy defense

CINCINNATI -- Eli Apple spit to the side, inhaled deeply and took a drag from 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 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 in the last couple of seasons, Apple exhaled a plume of smoke, scrunched his face 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' latest victory was yet another example of the 56-year-old Staten Island native's defensive formula upending one of the game's best players. Most notably, Cincinnati has stumped 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 has been Anarumo's willingness to experiment, tweak designs and ultimately adjust as needed to stop high-powered offenses. For as long as he can remember, he has valued schematic flexibility.

"Whether it's in college or now in the NFL, [when] you play elite quarterbacks, you just can't give them the same picture," Anarumo told ESPN. "You just gotta keep changing it and just attempt to keep those guys off balance."

Keeping opponents guessing helped the Bengals field one of the top defenses in the league in 2022. Cincinnati was sixth in the regular season in offensive points allowed, tops in opposing completion percentage and fifth in touchdowns surrendered per drive.

Those metrics are a byproduct of a scheme Anarumo has refined during his four seasons with the Bengals. He is always looking to do some tinkering to find success.

ANARUMO GOT INTO 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 winningest coach in New York's Public School Athletic League.

Anarumo started his career in 1989 at the U.S. 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 eventually Purdue. Anarumo moved up to the pros in 2012, where he joined a Miami Dolphins staff led by coach Joe Philbin.

Anarumo specialized in coaching defensive backs. When Philbin and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle were fired in 2015, Anarumo was made an 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 shift of his career.

When the Bengals hired Zac Taylor as the head coach in 2019, he hired Anarumo to be Cincinnati's defensive coordinator. Taylor worked with Anarumo in Miami and was in need of someone to fill the vacancy after numerous names linked to the job didn't work out.

"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 darn good football teams. So there was the allure of that."

It was also the chance for Anarumo to lead a unit of his own. But the Bengals quickly realized the task at hand would be difficult. The roster, especially on defense, was filled with aging stars and needed a massive overhaul.

"You had just guys doing their own thing," said linebacker Germaine Pratt, a rookie at the time. "They ain't buy into what he was doing, you know? So we got in new guys."

Over time, players such as defensive tackle DJ Reader and safety Vonn Bell started to improve the defense. But the unit still struggled and finished the 2020 season 22nd in opposing scoring.

Taylor remained confident in Anarumo's vision.

"It takes time to iron out the wrinkles in the scheme," Taylor said. "It takes time to place the personnel how you want it. It takes time to let guys grow in the scheme. I think that just requires patience sometimes... You can see what happens when you got patience. It's an awesome thing to see."

That set the foundation for what followed.

OVER THE LAST two seasons, Anarumo has proven Taylor's instincts to be correct. The Bengals, led by a bevy of free agents including cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and defensive end Trey Hendrickson, rounded into 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 adjust and adapt became evident in big games, too. In the Week 17 home game against Kansas City last season, Mahomes steered the visitors to a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter. But in the second half, the tables turned as 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 were a big reason for Kansas City's struggles.

"Just taking away the easy stuff over the middle," Apple said. "Packing the middle [of the field], making them try to beat us deep, but taking away the deep stuff too."

In that game, he also earned his "Mad Scientist" moniker from the players. He was aggressive with his game plan, including sending blitzes on downs that were atypical for Cincinnati's defense. Anarumo held a zero blitz in his pocket until Kansas City's final snap from scrimmage. Even though the Bengals corners had no help, Mahomes was rattled by the pressure look, threw an incompletion and the Bengals got a stop.

In the 2021 AFC Championship Game, Anarumo's defense foiled Mahomes again. Kansas City's quarterback completed just 44.4% of his passes after halftime and was intercepted in overtime by Bell, setting up 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 cooking up next.

"He's in the lab always coming up with something," Bell said. "Thinking of something and he wants to put you in position to be successful. His work ethic is relentless. It doesn't stop. His mind is always going and always on to the next."

EACH WEEK, ANARUMO builds bespoke packages for the upcoming opponent. Matt Bowen, an ESPN analyst and former NFL defensive back, cited the example of Cincinnati shifting from a single-high safety look to several Cover 2 formations in the team's divisional playoff victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

"That tells me that's a coach who says we don't have a true coverage identity - our coverage identity is dictated or predicated on a team we're playing every week," Bowen said. "That's the sign of a good defense."

Bowen added that in the NFL, being able to make adjustments on the fly is key to a team's success. The numbers suggest the Bengals' defense is as good as anyone's in the league in that 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 opposing QBR (36.3), according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the three games against the Bengals during that span, Mahomes has thrown zero touchdowns and two interceptions after halftime.

Anarumo's process for experimentation also points to his success in managing players.

In the week preceding the Bills game, he drew up a coverage aimed at doubling Stefon Diggs, Buffalo's No.1 wide receiver. When the defense tried out the play at practice, it was clear it wasn't going to work. Bengals safety Jessie Bates immediately conveyed the unit's sentiments to Anarumo and it was scrapped.

"Being able to question your defensive coordinator is tough," Bates said. "But he's been able to open that door, have those conversations. Even if we're wrong, he'll have those conversations."

WHEN THE BENGALS reached the Super Bowl last season, Anarumo and Cincinnati offensive coordinator Brian Callahan received interest for head coaching gigs. Anarumo was interviewed by the New York Giants, a team he grew up cheering 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 lab-like qualities to explain why the defensive coordinator could be a great coach.

"It's not about, 'This is the scheme and we're just gonna do it whether it fits the guys or not,'" Taylor said. "He's constantly evolving it to make sure we're putting guys in 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 steady in rocky times. Bengals assistant coach Robert Livingston, a former team scout who has been on staff since 2015, cited how Anarumo handled an alarming Week 14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in 2021.

"You kind of come in on Monday - 'Oh, this [season] has a chance to go sideways.' And he was just unwavering. And I'll never forget that," Livingston said.

As Cincinnati prepares for another AFC Championship Game, Anarumo's coaching stock has climbed. And while he has personal aspirations beyond Sunday's game, he knows his team-issued hoodie must double as a lab coat for yet another week.

"It's a goal of every coach to at some point have a chance to run their own ship," Anarumo said. "But at the end of the day, right now, what's important is that we beat [Kansas City] on Sunday. And that's going to be a tall order."