Do you remember when Mike Zimmer was defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals?
Hardly a day went by without someone—a player, a fellow coach, a member of the media—praising his abilities. He, of course, is now the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. But many fans still look back at his tenure with the team with fondness.
When was the last time someone spoke up to praise Lou Anarumo, the Bengals’ defensive coordinator since 2019? More importantly, did he deserve more praise?
In 2019, Anarumo guided one of the healthiest defenses in the NFL to a 30th place finish, despite one of the easiest schedules in the league.
Last year brought another easy schedule, but the defense battled injuries throughout the season. It also dealt with personnel issues, as Bengals’ legend Carlos Dunlap was shipped to Seattle after a public disagreement with the coaching staff, and future Hall of Famer Geno Atkins was unceremoniously sent packing after the season.
Not surprisingly, Cincinnati finished 26th in yards allowed last season, giving up nearly 400 yards per game. And, don’t look now, but the Bengals own the sixth-toughest strength of schedule in 2021.
Regardless of the roster upheaval, Anarumo is running out of opportunities. He can’t go three straight years with poor defenses, especially now that the team has spent big on free agents that they believe fit his scheme. He is, thus, the top story on defense heading into the season.
The Biggest Question Marks on Defense
1. Defensive Coordinator Lou Anarumo
Taylor and Anarumo know each other well from their time together in Miami. There appears to be a level of trust there, which can be good in terms of being on the same page as a coaching staff. But neither has proven himself yet, and both should be on the hot seat.
Anarumo came from the New York Giants, where he coached the defensive backs. Previously, he was an interim defensive coordinator for the Dolphins for a handful of games in 2015. But Cincinnati was his first real opportunity to prove himself as a DC and, so far, the results have not been ideal.
Optimism is running high for this unit in 2021, though that may be misplaced considering their performance last year.
The highest-rated backer on the team is not even a starter. Special teams ace Jordan Evans, who played only 63 snaps last year, managed to score an overall grade of 61.0 from Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, the two presumed starters, Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, came in at 54.7 and 41.5 respectively. Pratt’s run defense grade was an abysmal 29.3, good for 96th among qualifying linebackers.
The other young guns, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey, did not fare much better. The former totaled nearly as many snaps as Wilson and finished with an overall grade of 40.7 (31.6 on run defense), while the latter managed an overall mark of only 32.6 on 44 snaps.
3. Defensive Line
In the words of Ben Linsey of PFF, “It’s not often that a team signs a defensive end to a four-year, $60 million contract in the offseason and gets worse at the position.” Yet many people feel this is exactly what happened when the Bengals let Carl Lawson walk and turned around and signed Trey Hendrickson, formerly of the New Orleans Saints.
Although he finished second in the league with 13.5 sacks last year, Henrickson was ranked by PFF as only the 29th-best edge rusher entering 2021. (Lawson, meanwhile, was ranked 18th.) Many people consider last year to be an aberration for Hendrickson, and credited his big numbers to being surrounded by better talent. Time will tell.
The line will get a big boost from the return of D.J. Reader, who missed eleven games last year but is now fully healthy. The massive tackle earned a PFF grade of 85.4 with the Houston Texans in 2019. He and Hendrickson will be joined by Mike Daniels and Sam Hubbard with rookies Joseph Ossai and Tyler Shelvin providing much-needed depth.
The defensive unit’s biggest strength
Look for the defensive backfield to be the strength of this unit, with the duo of Jessie Bates, III and Vonn Bell expected to among the best safety combinations in the league.
Trae Waynes, who spent the entire 2020 season on injured reserve, and free-agent acquisition Chidobe Awuzie will capably man the boundary cornerback positions, Mike Hilton, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, signed with the Bengals this offseason and is one of the best slot corners in the business.
Takeaway artist Darius Phillips will fight for one of the starting spots, though he is likely to provide solid depth instead. And Eli Apple, a former first-round selection of the New York Giants, will look to resuscitate his career in Cincinnati, as will Ricardo Allen, who came over from the Atlanta Falcons.
Thus, while there are still questions that need to be answered, there is also room for optimism. But it all starts at the top with Anarumo. If he is able to put these players in position to succeed, the defense will be respectable, which will be a great improvement over his first two years as defensive coordinator.