With the offense flaming into a funk and the snap counts and fatigue mounting on defense, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo had a decision to make late in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 17-13 win against the Seattle Seahawks.
The offense already had possessions lasting a mere 47 seconds in the third quarter and 16 seconds in the fourth quarter when a three-and-out drive lasting 24 ticks had Anarumo weighing his options.
It was the kind of moment why defensive line rotations are employed. When the starters are gassed, the backups give them a breather. But how much breathing could D.J. Reader, B.J. Hill, Trey Hendrickson, and Sam Hubbard do in 69 seconds, which is all that was left in the game?
Anarumo didn’t overthink things.
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“I just walked over to ’em, and I said, ‘I’m not putting anybody else out there but you four, and I want you four to go win the game for us,’” Anarumo said 24 hours after the victory.
“And they just put their helmets on and said, ‘let’s go.’ And that’s what they did. They wrecked the game for us. We had our best guys out there, and that was great to see.”
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After Seattle quarterback Geno Smith hit Tyler Lockett for a 36-yard gain to give the Seahawks 1st-and-10 at the 11-yard line, the coverage got tighter on the back end, and Anarumo’s “Core Four” destroyed all hope for the visitors.
Seattle got in the red zone four times in the second half and got just three points to show for it.
When the Seahawks had 1st-and-goal at the 7-yard line with 3:27 to go, Hendrickson got a sack on first down, and Hubbard dropped him on fourth down.
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A few seconds later, when it was 1st-and-10 at the 11, Hubbard flushed Smith leading to a pass breakup by safety Dax Hill. On second down, Reader and linebacker Logan Wilson stopped Kenneth Walker III for a two-yard gain.
On third down, Anarumo gave his Core Four some help with Hill and linebacker Germaine Pratt blitzing off both edges, forcing Smith to throw high. And on the final fourth down of the game, Hill hit Smith as he threw to seal the win.
“We knew we had the bye coming up, so we were gonna empty their tanks a little bit,” Anarumo said. “But we certainly don’t want (that).”
Reader played 51 snaps, his second-highest total since joining the Bengals in 2021.
“That’s just too many,” Anarumo said.
Hubbard played 65, the eighth most of his career. Hill logged 55, his sixth most ever. And Hendrickson, who has been battling a back injury, had 49, the 12th most of his career.
“We’ll try to manage that better as we go forward now with the long stretch coming up,” Anarumo said.
It’s mid-October, when even six-, seven-, eight-year veterans are feeling fresh and spry. Saving their legs and lungs is going to take Anarumo being more willing to trust the backups and those backups proving themselves worthy of additional snaps.
Prior to Sunday, Cam Sample, Joseph Ossai, and first-round rookie Myles Murphy had combined for one sack and eight tackles.
Sample nearly doubled those totals by himself against the Seahawks, recording a sack and seven tackles while playing just 18 snaps (24%).
“He’s shown a knack of being around the quarterback, too,” Anarumo said. “He’s not gonna wow you with his – sorry, Cam – his size, length, speed. He’s just a good football player, and he’s smart, and he knows where to be.
“So once you earn our trust … ,” Anarumo continued. “And how do you do that? You do it by being consistent. He’s been here, and he’s been a guy we can count on. So we’ll put him out there in critical situations.”
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Ossai was building that trust last year, but an ankle injury derailed the start of his season to where he missed the first two games and only played five snaps in each of the next two. He logged 22 snaps Sunday and finished with one tackle and one quarterback hit.
Murphy is the biggest head-scratcher. He got just one snap Sunday, although that could have something to do with missing two practices for the death of his grandma. But Murphy only played seven snaps the week before at Arizona in a game that the Bengals had in hand in the fourth quarter.
And then there is Zach Carter, who was an undersized edge playing inside last year as a rookie. Bengals coaches raved about his body transformation this offseason and were predicting a breakout year for Carter, but he’s played 164 snaps with just two tackles and one pass defense.
The Bengals came into the season with the defensive line looking as though it was the deepest position group on the roster. If the team is continuing to continue its climb from a 1-3 start, the depth is going to carry some of the weight.
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