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From Recruiting Blitz to Zero Blitz, Bengals Defense Comes Of Age

Jessie Bates III had Sunday's big pressure.
Jessie Bates III had Sunday's big pressure.

Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo felt it on the snap before the biggest play of the year Sunday. And the call, his only zero blitz of the day, felt right.

 Just like he felt it back in March when he first glimpsed his four brand new starters that giddy night at The Precinct, Cincinnati's toney east side eatery, already beginning to bond by exchanging phone numbers along with a recruiting night excitement.

"I was thinking about it on second down," Anarumo recalls of the all-out blitz during Sunday's all-in game.

The Bengals needed it to make the playoffs. The gold-standard-two-time-AFC champion Chiefs needed it to be the top seed.

"If they get any farther down there in the red area, I was going to call it," Anarumo recalls. "Had to be one of the biggest plays of the game for us."

How about the biggest play of the year in the biggest game of the year for a Bengals defense that has gone from chopped liver to filet mignon in 16 audacious games?

The Bengals had shut out the NFL's best quarterback for the entire second half in disarming that stick of dynamite hanging from Patrick Mahomes' right shoulder for just 50 yards and now, just 6:09 from the AFC North title, they were trying to hold him to a field goal in a game they led, 31-28. It was third-and-five from the Bengals 16 and, at the very least, they wanted to get the ball back to their Mahomes, Joe Burrow, the hottest quarterback on the planet, in a tie game. 

"Mahomes. The red zone. The AFC North title," Anarumo says. "Was there ever going to be another time?"

Anarumo is in the bottom half of the league when it comes to blitzing. About 21 percent of the time. And one of the cardinal rules is not to blitz a Superman. (See Martindale, Wink and Spagnuolo, Steve v. Burrow, Joseph Lee). And his five previous blitzes on the day showed why. Mahomes was five-for-five for 109 yards.

But Anarumo changed it up a bit. During Monday's autopsy of the game with the media, Anarumo acknowledged the Bengals aren't known for blitzing in that part of the field.

"We kind of went against our tendencies a little bit there, and I just felt it was right time, right place. Guys executed it great," Anarumo said. "The first third down of the game was a third-and-2 and we blitzed which is not typical of us in that down and distance. We were able to get off the field there. I had that mindset on third down to be aggressive, but just make sure we pick out spots with it and I felt like that was the right time to do it and the players executed it great."

The zero blitz concept is simple. Maybe not the execution. But basically, seven men blitz with the free safety out of the middle of the field and the four defensive backs each one-on-one. When he was a rookie, the Bengals' cerebral and resourceful free safety Jessie Bates III saw what happens when a zero blitz is not executed well.

In 2018, the Bengals had just taken a 21-20 lead over the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium and were 68 seconds away from going to 5-1. But Ben Roethlisberger, more Dracula than Superman with his comebacks from injury and deficits but another guy that kills the blitz, drove the Steelers to the Bengals 31 with 15 seconds left.

Big Ben had plenty of time to exploit the zero and he did on a 31-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown completed in muffled silence. The next week, Mahomes pumped up 45 points against the hung-over-from-the-loss Bengals in Kansas City.

But those days are long gone for a defense that has come up big in the biggest games (10 points in Denver, 13 points in Vegas, an average of 14 points in the four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore) and this zero blitz showed why with ability teaming with acumen.

"It takes a lot to actually learn how to run a zero blitz and we've got the details down better," Bates says. "There needs to be a lot of coordination in the back end."

So it was fitting that when Anarumo made the call and they broke the huddle, Bates and the other rookie who was on the field that day against Pittsburgh, defensive end Sam Hubbard, were lined up next to each other. With Bates assigned running back Darrell Williams, Williams had to decide who to block.

Bates or Hubbard? If Williams ran a route, Hubbard would be unblocked with Bates in coverage. But that's the beauty of seven rushers. Mahomes needed Williams to block. He chose Hubbard and Bates was in Mahomes' face immediately unblocked. While the secondary seamlessly passed off the receivers with strong safety Vonn Bell directing traffic when Mahomes sent one in motion, Mahomes had to back pedal away from Bates and couldn't get anything on a throw that bounced harmlessly in front of wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

Field goal.

"The thing I keep saying," Bates says, "it's no ego. No one is complaining about not getting sacks or getting tackles or being in position to make a play. If the play comes, then we make it. Our chemistry is really good."

Anarumo got the feel for that almost right away. In the third day of free agency, the Bengals welcomed four new defensive starters in cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton, edge Trey Hendrickson and tackle Larry Ogunjobi in a recruiting dinner crafted by head coach Zac Taylor for the visit of Vikings right tackle Riley Reiff.

Like the zero blitz, Anarumo's pitch to get them in the room had been simple enough. They needed to put pieces around a winner in Joe Burrow, a quarterback that could take them where they wanted to go if he had help on the other side of the ball, On Sunday, they got the ball back for him.

"Zac had a vision and I think they could see what the quarterback meant to it," Anarumo says. "And these guys were big pieces.

"They hit it off and the rest is kind of history," Anarumo says. "They were asking each other questions. It was their first experience in free agency. It was all new to them. They had known only one team. It was more of a college night recruiting atmosphere."

From a recruiting blitz to a zero blitz, the Bengals defense flexes its muscles.