There once was a time, not so long ago, that the Cincinnati Bengals were known for their defense. Longtime head coach Marvin Lewis had been the architect of the 2000 Ravens dominant defense before being hired in 2003 to run the Bengals. Mike Zimmer ran a string of exceptionally dominant defenses as the Bengals defensive coordinator from 2008 to 2013, and Paul Guenther continued that trend when Zimmer got the head job in Minnesota.
Guenther left for the same job in Oakland prior to the 2018 season, which coincided with the Bengals’ defensive downturn. Teryl Austin, who had received praise for his work as the Lions defensive coordinator, replaced Guenther but was fired after Week 10. Lewis, who took over play-calling, was later fired at the conclusion of the season. He was replaced by the offensive-minded Zac Taylor, who began a long search for his defensive coordinator that reportedly involved many candidates saying no before settling on then-Giants defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo.
Anarumo brought with him a whopping 12 games of experience as the interim defensive coordinator for the 2015 Miami Dolphins, but no other prior experience calling plays. Anarumo ended up installing a hybrid defense in Cincinnati, ending the days of the strict 4-3 that had been run during Lewis’ entire tenure. Our own Matt Minich, who also covers the Bengals for Cincy Jungle, explained Anarumo’s system:
The Bengals spend the majority of their time in substitution packages, largely nickel. Their nickel cornerback, Mackensie Alexander, is skilled in coverage and run defense. They generally align with one deep safety. This is usually Jessie Bates who is quietly becoming one of the best deep-field safeties in the league. The other safety, Vonn Bell, will rock down most of the time. Bell is basically a fast linebacker. He is excellent against the run, but will struggle at times in coverage, particularly in deep-field zones. They run a lot of Cover 1, and they have one outstanding cornerback in William Jackson. The other outside cornerback position has been an issue for them throughout the season, but this week Darius Phillips is set to return from IR, which should help.
In their substitution packages, they generally have four down defensive linemen, but when they want to stop the run they will run a bear front. Although they will run Bear fronts out of various defensive personnel groups, they prefer to bring in an extra defensive tackle in place of the nickel cornerback. The three defensive tackles will play inside and defensive ends Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard become stand-up outside linebackers.
That approach, much like Mike Nolan’s similar approach in Dallas, hasn’t gotten off to a hot start. Last year, Anarumo’s first on the job, the Bengals finished 29th in yards allowed, 25th in points allowed, 28th in takeaways, 26th in sacks, and 30th in DVOA. So far this season, they rank 26th in yards allowed, 20th in points allowed, 26th in takeaways, dead last in sacks, and 29th in DVOA. Not exactly the improvement that Cincinnati was hoping for.
The stagnation on defense is especially disappointing because of the list of playmakers Anarumo has at his disposal. As Minich said, William Jackson III is one of the most underrated cover corners in the NFL, as evidenced by the fact that his 52.5% completion rate allowed ranks as the sixth-lowest figure among defenders with 60 or more passes thrown at them. Then there’s safety Jessie Bates, who is in his third year as a pro and has begun to establish himself as one of the league’s best safeties:
Jessie Bates has a PFF grade of 91.3— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) December 10, 2020
That's not only the BEST safety in football, Bates has the 4th highest grade of all defensive players behind Donald, Watt and Mack.
On offense, only Mahomes, Rodgers, D.Adams and Kelce have higher grades.
Bates leads the team in interceptions with three, and while he’s only been targeted in coverage 35 times, his 54.3% completion rate allowed is impressive. Additionally, quarterbacks are averaging a dismal 53 passer rating when throwing Bates’ way, which is not only the lowest such figure for any safety right now, but the fourth-lowest figure among all defensive backs. To put it simply, he’s really good.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the Bengals’ defensive rankings is that they have the least amount of sacks in the league. They also rank 30th in pass rush win rate, raising questions about why they can’t create pressure. Part of it has to do with the midseason trade of veteran edge rusher Carlos Dunlap, but the Bengals still have a good duo of edge rushers in Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard. Lawson leads the team in both pressures and sacks, with Hubbard right behind him in terms of pressures. But the team as a whole has been unable to get it done, as Lawson is the only player with more than one sack this year.
It’s hard to understand the issue, as Anarumo has certainly tried to scheme up more pressure. Last year, the Bengals blitzed on 32.5% of all drop backs, which was 10th highest in the league, but it resulted in just the 18th highest pressure rate. So far this year, they’re blitzing on 31.7% of drop backs, which is the 13th highest mark. Still, the Bengals rank at the bottom in pressure rate.
That’s more or less been the story for this Bengals defense since Anarumo took over. There is some obvious talent on the roster, and Anarumo has tried to shore up their deficiencies through blitzing, but it just hasn’t worked. And as a result, they’ve allowed 350+ total yards in all but two games this year. After a gauntlet of imposing defenses in their last four games, the Cowboys seemingly get a nice moment of respite in facing a Bengals defense that, for whatever reason, is unable to put it all together.