The Bengals defense, bruised and battered, is very, very unbowed as they prepare to face the Steelers Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium. Led by scrappy defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, the native New Yorker and devout Yankees and Knicks fan, they're looking to make things right in the final six games of the season.
There are signs the corner has been turned as they come off their best outing of the year, allowing a season-low 17 points on the road to an Oakland offense that has been protecting the passer (just a dozen sacks) and the ball (just eight turnovers). But the Bengals racked up their most sacks (three) since the opener and forced multiple turnovers (two) for the first time in eight games. Anarumo blitzed more than normal (36 percent) and let's see how he plays it Sunday.
Not only that, the Bengals are fifth in red zone defense and in the last three weeks they're a top ten rush defense.
"If we can continue where we're at, keep points off the board, that's the most important stat," Anarumo said after Thursday's practice. "We're still in the top (five) in the league in red zone defense, so that's the one good stat we have when it comes to statistics. That's a big one. We got to improve on third down (27th in the NFL) and can you continue the rushing stats the way they are going. We've outrushed our last three opponents as a team. So, if you do that you are going to win more than you lose."
The Bengals get their second shot at Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph after Rudolph carved them in his second NFL start back on Sept. 30. But the 24-for-28 and 229 yards passing are extremely misleading. Eight of those were basically handoffs as Pittsburgh stunned the Bengals with an un-Steeler-like WildCatish zone read. Pittsburgh had a rare Bengals game they didn't rush for 100 yards, but when the Steelers saw how poorly the Bengals were on the perimeter against the 49ers (259 yard rushing) and the Bills (175), they attacked it by protecting the inexperienced Rudolph.
Since then, zone read artists Lamar Jackson (twice) and Kyler Murray have racked up big days against them and have sentenced them to the bottom of the defensive rankings. But Anarumo is hopeful things are fixed after they've seen just about every kind of running QB the NFL has to offer, from the balletic Jackson to the speedster Murray, from the freight train of Josh Allen to the moustache of Gardner Minshew.
"That's been our world. You play Baltimore twice, that's what you're going to get," Anarumo said. "It's been that type of deal. But it's going to be the trend of the league so we've got to know what it is and how to defend it, for sure. I think the guys have done a much, much better job of it as things have gone on … Maybe it's just the guys feel more comfortable with those type of plays. They're not traditional NFL plays, you know? I think overall, maybe just feeling more comfortable doing it, playing it."
No question. Anarumo thinks the Steelers are quite capable of running something similar, but they won't be as well-armed as they were back in September. Their top receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster (concussion/knee), and top rusher, James Conner (shoulder), haven't practiced this week and aren't expected to play. Neither is suspended center Maurkice Pouncey.
Conner (125 combined yards) and Smith-Schuster (15) accounted for 140 of the Steelers 326 yards in the 27-3 victory over the Bengals.
"Any time you get a chance to practice against what the opponent is going to do, that helps. The first game, we kind of sorted it out as the game went along," Anarumo said. "But hopefully we'll have a better handle. I'm sure they're going to do something different. Obviously not going to do the same exact stuff. That would be obvious. So we'll have to adapt as the game goes along."
Anarumo has gone back to the tape of Oct. 12, 2015, when Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin went to San Diego without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and conjured up a 24-20 win with the help of what Rudolph used back in September.
"(Tomlin)'s got it in his DNA," Anarumo said. "They're out there against the Chargers. Mike Vick (203 yards passing) started at quarterback and (running back) Le'Veon Bell (111 yards rushing) was running the Wildcat. I've taken a look at that. They've got it. They've done it. He knows. We know it and we'll be ready for it. That was the first time they did it maybe since then. But we'll be prepared for it."
PHILLIPS RETURNS: Before the Bengals' Brandon Wilson burst on the scene in the fifth week of the season to lead the NFL in kick returns heading into Sunday, there was Bengals cornerback Darius Phillips.
Remember Phillips? Back in the third game of the season in Buffalo, Phillips returned a kick for a touchdown that was called back because of a hold. On the last play of that game, Phillips thinks, he took a step and did something to a ligament that needed a knee scope to be repaired. On Wednesday, Phillips returned to practice and if things go well he'll be active for the Jets game Dec. 1.
And he's not surprised Wilson is averaging 35 yards per kick with special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons and assistant Brayden Coombs. If anyone knows why Wilson is a good kick returner it's Phillips. When Phillips was at Western Michigan, he set a FBS record with 12 return touchdowns, five of them on kickoffs.
"Darrin and Brayden are great coaches," Phillips said. "Whoever they put back there was going to be good because of the scheme. He's got great speed and he's decisive. He's not hesitant. He trusts his scheme and he trusts his blocks."
INJURY UPDATE: With a light rain falling Thursday afternoon the Bengals moved practice into the stadium on the turf while wide receiver A.J. Green (ankle) moved his rehab into the gym. He won't play Sunday and it looks like neither will wide receiver Auden Tate (concussion), out again on Thursday. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan (illness) missed another practice, which means they've had only three receivers on the roster in practice this week. Tight end Drew Sample (ankle) is going to be ruled out Friday.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (knee, ankle) had his second straight rest day, but he's expected to play. Center Billy Price (shoulder) and safety Shawn Williams (thumb) went limited again, but should play.