NFL teams skipping Lou Anarumo in head-coaching searches ‘a joke,’ says analyst
Why is the league’s best defensive coordinator flying under the radar in the NFL’s coaching search?
CINCINNATI (WXIX) - The Bengals’ hot start on offense against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday got most of the attention early—blink your eyes and it was 14-0.
But the Bengals defense was just as dominant through the Bills’ first two drives, and it stayed that way for the duration of what turned into a drubbing. Credit goes to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.
But the more praise Anarumo receives, the more perplexing becomes his absence from the January interview circuit. There are five open head coaching positions in the NFL right now, and more than 20 interviews have been conducted. Lou Anarumo hasn’t sat for one of them.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor believes Anarumo is ready. “He’d be a great head coach,” Taylor said Monday. “He’s extremely smart. He has the player’s best interests in mind. He wants to put them in the best position to succeed.”
It’s one of those situations that grows stranger as it evolves. Anarumo’s acumen is gaining so much attention that its status as a badly kept secret threatens to topple into common knowledge. Soon everyone will know, or claim already to have known, that he’s one of the best defensive minds in football.
ESPN’s Louis Riddick chimed in yesterday. “The fact that nobody wants to hear about his leadership, team building/salary cap, staff construction, teaching and development (offensive and defensive and [special teams]) philosophies via a [head coach] interview is a joke,” Riddick said.
Is that take really “hot” anymore after Sunday? Bengals fans hope so. Keeping their under-the-radar defensive maestro under the radar could help sustain Cincinnati’s championship window into the second contracts of the team’s young superstars. But as hot takes go, it’s certainly cooling.
Just plug “Lou Anarumo” into Twitter’s search bar and bear witness to the admiration—from lay fans, television analysts, analytics nerds, all-22 film junkies and, perhaps most ardently, his own current players. (The “mad scientist” sobriquet is going around, courtesy of cornerback Eli Apple.)
NFL Network’s Peter Schrager had this to say Tuesday morning: “You’d be hard-pressed arguing that he hasn’t been the best defensive coordinator over the past two seasons. He’s silenced Mahomes multiple times. He’s silenced Josh Allen. And he does it in silence. You don’t hear sound bites from him. He’s not a self-promoter.”
Anarumo came to the Bengals prior to the 2019 NFL season. The defense’s struggles his first two years belied the unit’s trajectory, according Taylor.
“You could see the vision of what he was trying to get going, and 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 the players grow in the scheme. […]Everything we’ve done here requires patience. You can see what happens when you have patience, and it’s an awesome thing to see.”
Anarumo‘s defense has excelled against the league’s best quarterbacks. It’s made Aaron Rogers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert all look average in terms of expected points added per dropback, according to The Ringer.
His halftime adjustments are also remarkably effective. Opposing teams averaged significantly fewer EPA per play in the second halves of Bengals games this season compared to the first halves, and the Bengals defense is giving up the fewest EPA per play in the NFL this season after the break.
“He’s constantly evolving [the scheme] to make sure we put our guys in position to do things that hit their strengths,” Taylor said of Anarumo. “He does a great job adjusting over the course of the week, over the course of the game. It’s not fun being a defensive coordinator in theAFC. Every week is a challenge. He never blinks. I think the players feel that from him. I feel that from him. He’s always going to give our guys a chance to go play well.”
The Bengals defense has also played its best when it’s mattered most. In Cincinnati’s six playoff games with Anarumo as defensive coordinator, the defense has forced 12 turnovers and is giving up just 18.2 points, including a second half in Kansas City last year when the Bengals held Mahomes and the Chiefs to just three points.
Fast forward to last Sunday’s masterclass, when Cincinnati stymied the vaunted Buffalo offense. The Bills hadn’t scored fewer than 17 points all year; they scored 10 against the Bengals.
“We know the game is gonna come to us sooner or later,” defensive tackle and team captain D.J. Reader said Tuesday. “A lot of people just can’t be disciplined, and that’s something coach Lou preaches.”
The Bengals against the Bills had by far the highest rate of perfectly covered dropbacks of any team against any opponent all season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Quarterback Josh Allen didn’t throw a touchdown pass all game. Star wide receiver Stefan Diggs caught just four balls for 35 yards. The Bengals run defense gave up just 63 yards on the ground. The Bills scored a touchdown on one of their eight possessions; like last year’s Chiefs, they scored just three points after the half.
“They’re taking away your first, sometimes your second option,” said the NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger. “This guy is a next-level thinker. That’s what you’re up against when you play Cincinnati’s defense.”
It’s a lot about scheme. Anarumo used simulated pressures and disguised coverages with late movement at the snap to astonishing success (see here, and also, and also). He frequently blitzed a quarterback in Allen praised as a bail-out artist but not known for his quick decision making. The defensive line employed stunts and spies to keep Allen in the pocket where he’s least comfortable. In all, the Bengals appeared to expose a Bills offensive scheme that lacks enough “answers” to pressure situations and a quarterback who too often chooses difficult throws over a hot route or a check down.
But with Anarumo, it’s also about culture.
“Something that coach Lou has done, he’s created a family-oriented type of group here in Cincinnati,” safety Jessie Bates said. “Our defense is just so detailed, we play very hard for one another. Creating that family atmosphere helps us communicate, helps us talk on the same levels, ask the same types of questions, makes urge we’re seeing things through the same lens. We got a special group here for sure.”
Reader agrees. He remarked Tuesday he thinks Anarumo would be an “awesome” head coach.
“We gotta give him all the love, because he deserves it,” Reader said. “I watched him work his ass off all this year. […]As a person who plays for him, I couldn’t ask for more out of my defensive coordinator, to really trust us in the way he does. He comes over to us on the sideline, he’s not yelling at us, he’s not on us like that. He’s talking through everything. He’s a real teacher of the game, and being able to study under someone like that is a true blessing for sho’.”
So, what’s a defensive coordinator gotta do to get on a head-coaching shortlist?
Or as Peter Schrager put it, much to the chagrin of Bengals fandom: “The guy is nails. Can he get an interview?”
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