Lou Anarumo, who seems to be Tony Romo's favorite defensive coordinator, also has a fan in Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie heading into what could be the third straight year of another win-or-else game in Kansas City (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) for Cincinnati.
Anarumo, architect of a 3-1 scheme against the magic of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes ("arguably the best quarterback in our league for a long time," Anarumo calls him), has his way with players as well as Xs and Os.
"Lou is like a guy in the locker room," Awuzie said after Wednesday's practice. "You get some coaches who are stand-offish. They kind of walk through the locker room, keep their head straight ahead. Lou will still stop to talk to you about things he's thinking about on the field. Things off the field he's thinking about.
"He's just one of the guys. Some things are understood, they don't need to be explained. I don't have to ask, 'Hey Lou, what are you guys doing?' … I know it's coming from a good place … I trust him."
Awuzie trusted him when he was coming back from his torn ACL this season and he put him in a rotation with second-round pick DJ Turner.
"It was good for DJ and it was good for me," Awuzie said.
And he trusts him now after last Saturday's two stunning snaps you never saw the previous two seasons when Awuzie let Steelers wide receiver George Pickens get behind him for a pair of third-down bombs, one for a 66-yard touchdown and one for a 44-yarder on third-and-15.
Make that, Awuzie had been in a rotation with Turner until the last five games. That's when the man who has succeeded Awuzie as their No. 1 cornerback, Cam Taylor-Britt, went down with an ankle injury. Last Saturday, Awuzie played all the snaps for the second time in that stretch that also included games of 97 and 99 percent play-time.
And Awuzie will trust Anarumo again Sunday, when he figures out how to use him, Taylor-Britt, and Turner. With Anarumo looking to get more from his young DBs, it's an interesting call.
"He's a super accountable guy on a lot of levels, so it's not been an easy year for him just because of coming off the injury and not getting in the rhythm that he wants to," Anarumo said before practice. "It's hard as a cornerback if you're not out there play in and play out and just getting a feel for the game, getting a feel for the guy you're covering. How he's running things and just because of the rehab didn't probably allow him to do that early on. He's feeling better now, so I still would never count him out."
Anarumo wished Awuzie didn't take the blame for the loss in Saturday's postgame media scrum. "He didn't have to," but they do agree that Saturday's plays aren't about a lost step because of surgery stemming from the Halloween, 2022 injury. Anarumo thinks it has more to do with timing and reps. Awuzie missed all spring, most of training camp, and played more than 50 snaps twice until the last month.
"I think (timing is) huge. It's just like if you're a hitter, if you're not getting that many at-bats," said Anarumo, ever the devout Yankees fan. "And then you come in against a different pitcher, everything changes. (But) if you get a real good feel for a guy during the course of a game … I think it definitely (affects him). "Especially the veteran guys that know how to read things and that affects him for sure. That's part of his game."
Stand-up guy that he is, Awuzie says, "I feel like myself." Which is a blistering 4.3 40-yard speedster who makes virtually every ball thrown his way contested. He says he relies so much on his speed that he feels 'a little naked," out there.
But he says these days he feels "fully clothed."
"When you have a knee (injury) you have to focus really hard on your technique because you are going to naturally work yourself back into being athletic again," Awuzie said. "In the mean time, you're out there playing, you have to be efficient. So technique has to be at a premium."
Awuzie turns 29 in an uncertain spring when he's a free agent. But right now he thinks he's good enough for the Chiefs and anybody else.
"I was thinking the other day, you see LeBron in year 20 or 21 still playing at the highest level and science and physical therapy have really improved over the last couple of years," Awuzie said. "I feel like I'm one of those guys who is always trying to do the next thing and keep up with my body. My speeds are still very high. I feel like myself."
Awuzie couldn't play in the two games against the Chiefs last year, the 27-24 win in the regular season at Paycor Stadium and the last-second 23-20 loss in the AFC title game at Arrowhead.
But he was in the middle of the two games in 2021 in scripts that played out pretty much the same way in '22. The Jan. 2, 2022 regular-season win at Paycor and the AFC title win 28 days later at Arrowhead both featured a second half shut down of Mahomes.
"Keep him at the forefront. We can't think too deep in the scheme. Obviously, we have to play within the defense and know what they're doing," Awuzie said. "But at the end of the day, it's players. They have 15 (Mahomes). They have 87 (tight end Travis Kelce). Those are players who are Hall of Famers. We have to be very efficient against those players and stopping those players doing creative things. Being physical. Stopping the run and all the stuff we now do as a defense."
The Chiefs offense and the Bengals defense are in different spots than they were the day they met for the AFC title. The Chiefs' No. 1 offense is now 27th and is looking for consistent wide receivers. The Bengals defense that took a 10-game winning streak into Arrowhead in which they were allowing 18.5 points per game has given up 26 in the last four and seeking consistency in their young secondary.
But Anarumo has reminded them that they have gone in there and they've done it.
"I see the hunger on the team right now. Everybody is kind of giving it a little bit extra. I'm definitely going to be doing the same," Awuzie said. "It's the biggest game of our lives because it's the next game … I think we're all pulling the same way."
JAKE TAKE: Jake Browning has watched Joe Burrow go 3-1 against the Chiefs. He has seen him hit 79% of his passes against them in the regular season and he has seen him come back from 21-3 down to win an AFC title at Arrowhead.
He has also seen Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo buckle it down in last year's AFC title game for two picks and five sacks. The KC defense is ranked 20th this season, but they're better than that. Their offense has given it away 26 times.
And Spags makes it a trip to the dentist. They blitz nearly 35% of the time, fifth highest in the league, while racking up the fourth most sacks.
"They mix up a lot of different calls, throw a lot of different stuff at you," Browning said. "You can tell the two linebackers have been in that system for a while, now. They're really good on the outside. They've got two longer corners. (Cornerback) Trent McDuffie is a really good player. I'm familiar with him from (University of) Washington.
"They're the defending Super Bowl champ, so they got a good defense, and obviously the front is good, too. I think anytime you play against a team at that high level, there are going to be guys in every part of the defense that kind of make it work. Maybe sometimes on really good teams, you've got guys that maybe aren't huge names that everybody is all about and knows everything about them, but they're really good players and play a big role in how they operate."
Browning knows how loud it is. He's been on the sidelines.
"I wouldn't say that playing at Pittsburgh or these other places, it's loud," Browning said. "Arrowhead, I'm sure they have another level of noise. At some point, you can't hear. Once you get to a certain point of noise, you can't hear regardless. Whether it's a nine out of 10 or a ten out of ten loud, nobody can hear me."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Burrow, who has been known to wonder aloud about aliens ("Jury's out") tweeted "Show me the Aliens!" over the holidays and it allowed Browning to utter one of his dry, funny one-liners when asked about the topic.
"I don't even care," he said. "I'm just trying to figure out Earth." …