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How Dr. Lou Doctored His Past To Put Bengals Defense At Head of The Class

Defensive Coordinator Lou Anarumo (left) and Head Coach Zac Taylor talk during practice at Kettering Health Practice Fields on September 7, 2022.
Defensive Coordinator Lou Anarumo (left) and Head Coach Zac Taylor talk during practice at Kettering Health Practice Fields on September 7, 2022.

The Bengals defense, which has dominated the last two NFL postseasons, is in crisis this offseason. Now that Lou Anarumo, their widely respected coordinator, has been conferred a doctorate from his alma mater of Wagner College, what nickname should be used for the man whose units have allowed an average of 19 points in their seven playoff games?

"Excuse me. I don't know if we can call him 'The Mad Scientist,' anymore," says safety Michael Thomas, who played for him a decade ago in Miami. "I think it's 'Dr. Lou,' now.

"When I got here in 2021, I was like, 'Yo, this is the same exact defense my whole time in Miami … But they don't call Lou 'The Mad Scientist,' for nothing. And I'm sorry. I mean, 'Dr. Lou.' He put his own little spin on it and he's built a defense where you don't have to be locked into personnel, body type or position."

For coaches, the offseason is the time to study tweaks and tucks and appear on the sidelines where they're welcome to take notes. It is virtually a secret society because the profession hates to divulge what it has or is about to concoct, so the offseason sidelines offer clues.

And that's where Fresno State defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle surfaced for a couple of days this week while the Bengals voluntarily worked on the Kettering Health Practice Fields and offered a glimpse into the roots and rising of Dr. Lou and one of the pros' hottest defensive schemes. Much like Anarumo visited Bengals practices decades ago when he was the secondary coach at Purdue and Coyle was the estimable Bengals secondary coach known for turning first-rounders like Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall into top-tier NFL cornerbacks.

"His work ethic. The way he went about his business," says Anarumo of what he gleaned from Coyle. Fundamentals for good defense with a bunch of different coverages. The game was evolving … In college we were trying to emulate what the pros were doing."

A natural match. Coyle became a hometown inspiration for Anarumo, 56, a decade ahead of him on Staten Island, before they worked together in 1991 at Syracuse when Anarumo was a grad assistant fresh out of Wagner and Coyle was the Orange's new DC.

"When he was at Purdue and Marshall, he'd drive out for (a Cincinnati coaching clinic) and he'd bring the whole family and stay with us," Coyle says. "He would dive into the playbook stuff and then I would watch their players and they were playing a lot of our schemes.

"I thought he was one of the best secondary coaches in college football. Studying kids in the draft and looking at the Purdue DBs, the footwork is better, the execution looks the way it's supposed to look."

A natural. When Coyle got the DC job with the Dolphins in 2012, he brought Anarumo into the league as his secondary coach on a staff that included another NFL rookie in quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. Mike Thomas would come a year later from the 49ers' practice squad.

Bengals defensive quality control coach Louie Cioffi, a Queens native and part of the Bengals' East Coast mafia of Coyle and Holy Cross icon Mark Duffner who was a part of two decades of Bengals defense before Cioffi and Duffner re-joined the organization when Taylor became head coach in 2019, has had a front row seat at the evolution.

"Lou has been at a lot of different places and he's done a great job taking the very best of where he's been and forming his own scheme," Cioffi says. "It's been on display the last two years and helped put us in situations to win championships."

We call Anarumo's playbook "The Staten Island Stew," floating with chunks of concepts he amassed at each stop. You can see defensive linemen dropping into pressures with concepts Duffner and Coyle mulled at The Cross and Maryland in the '80s. The zone pressures Coyle and head coach Paul Pasqualoni began to tinker in the 'Cuse at the dawn of the '90s. The Double A Gap blitzes and faux coverages Coyle picked up under old Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and took to Miami. The 3-4 principles from Anarumo's one season with Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher, now the Bengals linebackers coach.

Coyle likes the "stew," reference, in part, because Cioffi is such an accomplished cook of Italian dishes that his nickname is "Clemenza,", a nod to the chef/caporegime in the movie classic "The Godfather."

"What Lou has done is phenomenal. A little pinch here and a little pinch there. You can get Louie to stir the pot. It's a mixture and Lou has done a great job blending it all together," Coyle says. "There are multiple personnel groupings to match the offensive groupings you have to defend, but a lot of carry-over within the packages … They've got their core of things, but yet they're able to adapt to game situations. You can't change your (core) so how do you tweak it with a different guy playing the dime position or a nickel that can play safety or a safety that can get in the box and play the run and corners that can make it look like they're in man, but they're playing a zone."

That's why, Anarumo says, it all gets back to the players. And when he got his own NFL playbook, he wanted players who could do as many things as possible so he didn't have to take them off the field and still match the escalating offenses filling up with two-way quarterbacks and NBA wide receivers.

"He says let's not let them have the pen last," Mike Thomas says. "Say they put big people on the field trying to spread us out. Let's have an answer for that. Lou's giving us the tools to have an answer. That's why he's 'The Mad Scientist," and 'Dr. Lou.'"

Anarumo, who delivered the commencement address last week on Staten Island's Grymes Hill to Wagner's graduating class of 650 in his customary concise fashion of ten to 12 minutes, is just as succinct in the melding of his scheme.

"The league is nickel. Pass defense is now 70 percent of the time," Anarumo says. "To say you're 4-3 or 3-4, everybody is doing the same four-down stuff. And then you sprinkle it in. Five down, six down, whatever you do. And we acquired the kind of players we felt like we needed to do it."

Enter the Trey Hendricksons and Mike Hiltons and Logan Wilsons who can morph into a couple of positions. Note the first three picks in this last draft: Myles Murphy, an edge who can play inside. D.J. Turner, a cornerback who can also play the slot. Jordan Battle, a strong safety who can move out of the box.

But Coyle doesn't think everyone is doing it like Anarumo. He scouts the top NFL teams in the offseason and when he watches the Bengals play defense, they stand out.

"I watch how aggressive and physical they are and they play at a little different level than a lot of teams in the league. A handful of teams are in that same category," Coyle says. "Sure, they've got really talented players, but you have to have that and play at a high level. At a fever pitch. Play for each other and play unselfish and that's what you see when the Bengals play defense. You've got a lot of guys that make plays that like playing with each other and that play with enthusiasm. You see them get excited, almost like a college team camaraderie that you feel."

Anarumo got another whiff of college last week, 33 years after he left The Island with a degree in special education.

"You have to start addressing me as 'Doctor,'" Anarumo jokes. "The themes (of the speech) were leadership and giving back. It was unbelievable. The great thing was being back at Wagner, seeing all the people I know and being able to share a little bit of the graduates' day.

Asked what kind of grades he got at Wagner, Anarumo replied, "Good enough to get a doctorate."

Like Mike Thomas says. "The Mad Scientist," has to have the pen last.

Make that Dr. Lou.