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Combine Quick Hits: Lou Anarumo Vows Bengals Defense Returns With Vengeance; Communication At Heart of D's Offseason Improvements

DC Lou Anarumo watches from the sidelines during the Bengals-Falcons game in week 2 of the 2023 preseason.
DC Lou Anarumo watches from the sidelines during the Bengals-Falcons game in week 2 of the 2023 preseason.

INDIANAPOLIS _  During a quick moment off to the side here Thursday at the NFL scouting combine, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo lingered so he could still coach up Jordan Kovacs like that day in Nashville nine years ago.

Before Kovacs stepped in front of the cameras as Anarumo's new safeties coach, his boss wanted him to know the media was going to ask about that 2015 game in Tennessee, Anarumo's first as Miami's defensive coordinator.

That's because Anarumo told them to ask Kovacs about it during his own media duties. He wanted them to grill his old safety about some obscure play in the Dolphins' 38-10 win that still isn't so obscure to Anarumo.

"First of all, it was a blowout, so I was actually in the game," said Kovacs, who played in 28 of them during a three-year career primarily on special teams. "I think he called Cover 2,  but the signal from the sideline looked like Cover Zero, so I'm getting ready to blitz when I realized at the last second it was Cover 2 and Lou was yelling like he does, 'We're in 2, We're in 2.'

"So I hauled ass back in there.  I got back to my deep path. They didn't get a big completion. I think it's not that big of a deal, but Lou is still holding on to it."

Nine years later, that's where this offseason begins for a defense trying to find its way back to 2021 and 2022 after a sub-par 2023. Communication by the safeties and pretty much everywhere else after they were among the league leaders in allowing explosive plays.

"If we're not on the same page," Kovas said, "we don't have a shot."

Particularly at safety, where sophomore Dax Hill and rookie Jordan Battle flashed some big plays while giving up some crucial big ones.

"I'm not the only coach standing up here saying we have to have great communication on defense. And it has to improve. It's got to sound like the locker room when we're out there on defense," Anarumo said. "It's got to be loud. It can't be like these guys are these days where they just take their phones out. Nobody's talking to each other. It's got to be the bus in the locker room. Loud. That's what I want."

In Kovacs, he's got a guy who has been in locker rooms and can talk it. He didn't get drafted, but he's one of the more inspirational players ever at Michigan after he walked on to become a captain and MVP.

"In my opinion, (communication) is where the position starts. You're the quarterbacks on the back end. You have to communicate. You have to tackle well. It all starts with communication. We're running the show back there." Kovacs said.

"Both guys (Hill and Battle) are great people and work their asses off. And very good players. They can take their game to the next level. When you're performing and you're a good person, those are the first things you need to be a good leader. The next step is becoming more vocal, demanding more from your teammates. That's the area I expect those guys to improve."

Kovacs has the rest of the story from that day in Tennessee.

Anarumo wanted to put the hammer down even though the Dolphins were up by four touchdowns. He really did call that Zero blitz later and Kovacs came up with his one NFL sack when he decked Titans quarterback Zac Mettenberg on the last play of the game.


It's a big reason Anarumo thinks Kovacs, 33, is going to be a hit in his first stint as a position coach after five seasons as an assistant on his staff. On Thursday, Anarumo recalled those Miami summers.

"We did a lot of two split-station drills When that happens, we're stretched thin. There's not a lot of backups. So think about Miami in July and August," Anarumo said. "This guy never came off the field, did extra Sprints like you just he willed his way to make the team, as an undrafted free agent. I think we gave him about 25 bucks and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to come. And the guy has just never stopped. When you have that internal drive as a person, he's going to succeed at everything he does in life."

SAM THEY ARE: The Bengals are unanimous in their belief that left end Sam Hubbard, who turns 29 heading into training camp, has plenty left in the tank and is nowhere near the end. Anarumo sees the captain as a mirror of his defense.

"I think you'll see a healthy, re-energized, not that he ever lost his energy, a rejuvenated Sam Hubbard," Anarumo said. "He's a true warrior. Old-school, all those terms that you want to throw out there, basically playing on one leg last year. And he never wanted to come off the field. He'll be back with a vengeance this year. Like we all will be."

DAX WATCH: There has been much speculation about Hill moving positions, out of free safety and maybe to some kind of cornerback who can morph back instantly as a safety. (Remember Chris Crocker on Marvin Lewis' playoff teams in 2009 and 2011-13?)

But Anarumo played it pretty close to the vest Thursday.

"We're still looking at everything. We look at not just Dax, but everybody last year when you have a year that wasn't quite up to the standard. I think it's just something you evaluate," Anarumo said. "But nothing in particular there. Just keep working on it.

"He can do all of it. He's got to be good at one thing and that's what we're working on now is being good at one thing. I think his development and his upside is huge. Nobody is down on the guy at all. We just have to make sure that he's honed in and making sure that he's being able to do the things we're asking him to do. Wherever that may be."

And Mike Hilton, otherwise known as the NFL's best slot cornerback, is going nowhere even though he played safety in some packages last year.

"He's such a dominant player. He does some safety jobs for us on different down and distances," Anarumo said. "To say he's a full-time safety… Mike's one of the best nickels, if not the best nickel in the league so I don't want to tinker with that too much."

TACKLING DJ:  Anarumo said it all when asked about nose tackle DJ Reader's impending free agency. He's not only a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but his leadership is towering.

"What's that old commercial?" Anarumo asked, referring to the legendary E.F. Hutton ad. "Everybody listens."

At 6-3, 335 pounds, Reader is a massive man, the kind of strength, Anarumo says, the Bengals need in the middle in the middle of the AFC North.   The top prospects available at No. 18 are fast, as they showed in Thursday's 40-yard dash. Texas' Byron Murphy II (4.88) is 6-1, 308 pounds and Michigan's Kris Jenkins (4.91) is 6-3, 305.

"When I watch the free agents that are in the league now, I hope and pray that they played against our division because I'll go right to the Baltimore tape, I'll go right to the Cleveland tape right to the Pittsburgh tape because when they're playing that those group of teams," Anarumo said. "It's a little bit different than a lot of the other teams in our league where these guys are run off the ball, double team big people, trying to knock then into next week. If you can't anchor in there, you're going to get moved, you're going to try to swim around blocks and that creates different issues for us on defense. It's a little bit different in the AFC North."

That sounds like a powerful endorsement for power.

BIG PLAY SUM-UP: As Anarumo reviews this offseason what happened on the big plays, he believes there are very specific and individual things not getting done as opposed to big-picture flaws in talent and scheme. Anarumo estimates they faced 30 more runs in three fewer games and gave up nearly 300 yards after first contact.'

 "A lot of it was the second half of the play, where we kind of just lost," Anarumo said. "So you're talking about almost three more games of rushing yards, just on a missed tackle or we hit the guy and he falls forward for three, four or five. Too many of those things last year. They're all fixable for sure. I think there are a lot of elements to it. And we got our arms wrapped around it to make sure it doesn't happen again."