SEATTLE - Lou Anarumo, the Bengals’ first-year defensive coordinator, worked a career to call plays on Opening Day and it was more than worth the wait.
Using a battery of creative schemes, last year’s last-ranked defense sent a message as loud as its offensive counterparts by smothering the NFL’s top running game on 2.9 yards per carry while sacking quarterback Russell Wilson four times. Anarumo mixed it up, often playing a five-man line. Other times he used three safeties and no linebackers. His top two helmet callers were safeties, first Shawn Williams and then Jessie Bates III.
A defense that allowed 319 and 311 yards in the first half to Kansas City and New Orleans, respectively, last season, allowed just 233 yards all day to an offense that in 2018 scored 30 points per game over the last eight games.
“We didn’t show much during preseason. I think we’ve still got a little bit more. We’ll see if we continue to improve,” Bates said. “Pinning the hip was the biggest thing with the zone read. Russell, obviously he’s a mobile quarterback, so pinning the hip and not leaving any room in between those gaps, and I think we did a really good job of that.”
The frustrated Wilson went through six three-and-outs, but it was his genius out of the pocket that got them in the end. End of the third quarter, that is, when they had all of 150 yards. On third-and-five from his 41, Wilson had to scramble and looked to be done, but at the last minute rookie wide receiver DK Metcalf headed up field and Wilson shot-putted it high enough over the coverage for a 25-yard gain. Two snaps later on the first play of the fourth quarter, Wilson moved slightly to his right in the shot gun to whip the winning pass, a 44-yard touchdown to wide receiver Tyler Lockett on a post.
But those two plays were about it, until late when running back Chris Carson bolted for 21 yards with 2:24 left for a quarter of their rush yards.
“They stopped our first down runs. We didn't get any good positive first down runs we felt like,” Wilson said. “So it was second and ten or second and 13. So that's something we've got to go back and study and figure out how we can get better. Because you don't want those first down runs, if you're going to run on first down you want to make sure you get something positive out of it and make sure we're not getting backed up.”
The only way to defend Seattle is to stop the run, a challenge with just four linebackers. So Anarumo rolled out his five linemen. A total of six, led by left end Carlos Dunlap’s 49, played at least 20 snaps. They never went with a third backer and third safety Clayton Fejedelem played 13 snaps.
“We wanted to stop the run,” said right end Sam Hubbard, who had two sacks. “We were stout on defense and made them kind of one-dimensional, holding the No. 1 rushing attack to however many yards we held them to. It was good execution. It just comes down to a few plays, and that’s how it is in the NFL.”
Anarumo didn’t blitz wildly, but he got there once with cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. Wilson exploited another blitz for a 42-yard bomb to Metcalf wrenching a go ball away from cornerback William Jackson. But the idea that Anarumo sowed in the spring, simplicity means playing fast, showed up. The tentativeness that dogged them last season was gone.
“I think you saw how fast we played today,” Hubbard said. “We were kind of tired hearing about being last.”