New England Patriots

Cincinnati forced four straight turnovers in the third quarter of Sunday's win at Tampa Bay. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

  • Nearly six full years after Tom Brady “found the answers to the test,” the game’s greatest quarterback was left wanting in the face of the unfamiliar Sunday against the surging Cincinnati Bengals.

    Playing with a two-touchdown lead after his Buccaneers had scored the game’s first 17 points, Brady was less than halfway to a 90th straight win at home when leading by that much. He was also about to become the first 300-yard passer allowed by the Bengals this season.

    Thinking of the phrase he spoke to Peter King, then of Sports Illustrated’s MMQB, in February 2017, Brady was acing his latest test, opposite a defense he characterized as “fairly tough” on his weekly SiriusXM podcast.

    But starting at the 9:42 mark of the third quarter, with the difference at 17-6, Cincinnati’s multiple defense under fourth-year coordinator Lou Anarumo went full mettle, transforming into an unsolvable unit that would force the smartest quarterback to ever read a defense to fail.

    Again. And again. And again.

    First, Tre Flowers intercepted Brady at the Bucs’ 31-yard line. The Bengals took advantage, with a touchdown to pull within 17-12.

    Three plays later, Brady was sacked and stripped by Logan Wilson. Cincy recovered, parlaying possession at Tampa Bay’s 13-yard line into another TD, plus a two-point conversion and a 20-17 lead.

    A la deja vu, on the third play of his next series, Brady lost a second fumble, trying to hand-off, at the Buccaneers’ 39. Voila, given another short field the Bengals scored again, lengthening their advantage to 27-17.

    Finally, on the fifth snap of the next drive, Brady was hit while throwing and picked off again by Germaine Pratt. Though Cincy didn’t score off the takeaway, it pinned Tampa Bay at its 2-yard line with a punt, regained possession 92 second later and put the game away with a fourth touchdown.

    Thirty-one straight second-half points. Four Joe Burrow TD passes to four different receivers. A sixth straight Bengals victory. All keyed by a defense playing without its top two edge rushers and while employing three rookies in the secondary.

    “I think we just got more aggressive as a team,” defensive tackle D.J. Reader said. “We got more comfortable, [and] as players you start to feel that, you feel momentum shifts.

    “It’s just who we are, we are battle-tested as a team, a bunch of individuals who are battle-tested and a lot of guys (who) are hungry.”

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    Unheralded D.J. Reader (98) is a big reason why the Bengals have one of the NFL’s best defenses. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

    Reader is symbolic of a Cincinnati defense understandably overshadowed by the Bengals’ youthful and star-laden offense led by Burrow. An ex-Houston Texan in his third season as a Bengal, the 335-pound Reader crowds the middle front, stuffing runs and rejecting passes. 

    In Weeks 12 and 14, following a recent injury-related absence, he helped hold Tennessee’s Derrick Henry and Cleveland’s Nick Chubb to a combined 31 carries for 72 yards (2.3 per rush). At the same time, Reader was credited with three passes defensed in the two games.

    “He’s one of the best defensive tackles in the league and, for some reason, not really anybody knows about him,” says Burrow, according to Bengals media relations. “It’s time people start knowing about him.”

    Same should be said, as it is here, about Anarumo. 

    He’s Cincinnati’s 56-year old who paid coaching dues at Susan Wagner High in his native Staten Island, N.Y., in two stints at the Merchant Marine Academy and at nearby Harvard.

    Next stop, in all likelihood, will be elsewhere; with a loftier title and richer salary. Anarumo interviewed with the Giants during their head coaching search last January. National NFL reporter Albert Breer expects him to get more looks this January.

    Sunday’s short-handed performance in Tampa is typical of these Bengals, who’ve allowed just 115 second-half points. In fact, Cincy completed its first seven games of 2022 without yielding a touchdown in the third and fourth quarters. 

    Just like last year’s AFC Championship at Kansas City, where Burrow rallied the Bengals from a 21-3 deficit to a 27-24 overtime win. A goal-line stop just before halftime kept KC within striking distance. An interception following two incompletions to start overtime cued up Burrow to set up Evan McPherson’s game-winning field goal. 

    Heading toward next month’s postseason, Anarumo’s defense is forcing similar results.

    “They do a little bit of everything,” Patriots tight ends coach Nick Caley said ahead of this Saturday’s 1 p.m. matchup in Foxborough. “They’ll give you some post and some split (safety) looks, they disguise very well, so they make it challenging. They don’t give up a lot of explosive plays. They do a very good job against the run.

    “Really, from the first to second to third level, they have some flexibility within their positions to be able to have some guys play in different areas. I think from top to bottom they’re a very well disciplined defense that does a good job mixing coverage variations, playing very hard and stout against the run and unified. That’s the mark of a great defense.”

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    While quarterback Joe Burrow (left) is the face of the Bengals franchise, Lou Anarumo is the brains behind Cincinnati’s defense. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

    Quarterback Mac Jones, coming off perhaps the most disappointing start of his young career, is busy cramming this short week, balancing Bengals prep and self-corrections to the Pats’ struggling offense.

    “It’s just the process of, ‘Alright, here’s what we need to fix,’ and we’ve done that obviously from the last game. Then, ‘How do we attack the next defense?’” Jones said on Wednesday. “That’s how it has to be every week. Sometimes it’s a quick turnaround, sometimes we get (from) Sunday to Sunday or even more with bye week for example. But every week is the same in its own regard. 

    “We have plenty of banked reps against our defense, who is probably one of the most multiple defenses in the league, too. So (they’re) kind of similar to Cincinnati there. But yeah, I think it’s a great defense in Cincinnati. Just have to be ready to go from a mentality standpoint.”

    Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seems to see the Bengals’ defensive strength less in terms of volume and variety and more as a matter of consistency.  

    “This isn’t a team that does a lot of new things from week to week,” he said, when asked on Wednesday why Cincinnati enjoys such second-half success. “You don’t look at one game and say like, ‘Wow, that looks like a lot different than some other game.’ They’re pretty steady really in their personnel groups and their calls. I mean they have little variations from time to time or certain situations. But generally speaking, they play to their system, it’s balanced.”

    That means a mix of pressures. Not a lot, necessarily, “but enough to keep you on.” And coverages. Mostly zone; occasionally man, which they’re sure to play with specific “man-to-man players on the field.”

    The constant is what confronts Jones up front. Regardless of how he reads the secondary, Mac must get the ball over and around the likes of Reader and his line mates.

    “They’re long, they get their hands on some balls, a couple tipped passes for interceptions, things like that,” Belichick says. “They’re big up front. Reader, (tackle) B.J. Hill and those guys. I mean it’s not an easy group to throw with.”

    While Reader and Hill fill the interior, Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard (12½ combined sacks) rush from the edges.

    Hendrickson, a Pro Bowler in 2022, has been limited in practice this week after missing the Tampa Bay game due to a wrist injury. Hubbard didn’t practice on Wednesday, while dealing with an injured calf.

    With or without them, as we learned on Sunday, there’s no easy solution to a Cincinnati defense that’s proven to be substantially better than “fairly tough.” 

    Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.