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Watch out for the Bengals’ QB-sacking, ball-hawking, cigar-smoking defense

Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai hits Bills quarterback Josh Allen during the second quarter of Cincinnati's division-round win at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. (Adrian Kraus/AP)

In the visitors’ locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals’ bruising win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday in Orchard Park, N.Y., cornerback Eli Apple leaned against a wall near the entrance and puffed a cigar while holding court with reporters.

Before every answer, he sent a plume of smoke toward the ceiling, then leaned into the microphones to offer a few words before inhaling again, each time seeming more confident.

Apple claimed the Bengals’ defense is the greatest in the NFL. He described coordinator Lou Anarumo as a “mad scientist.” And at one point he instructed a reporter to watch the film to revisit the scope of the unit’s damage.

Though Apple is never lacking for confidence, his demand was, perhaps this time, warranted.

The Bengals’ recent turnaround can be directly linked to their quarterback, Joe Burrow, whom the team drafted first overall in 2020 and who led Cincinnati to Super Bowl LVI. But the defense’s improvement from a liability to a threat has turned the Bengals into a complete team at the right time — and perhaps has them in even better position to win the whole thing.

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On Sunday, Cincinnati turned a Bills offense that ranked second in yards and scoring in the regular season into a bumbling mess. Quarterback Josh Allen completed only 59.5 percent of his passes, didn’t throw for a touchdown and had an interception. He also took eight hits, and eight of his passes were defended.

“[Buffalo has] one of the most explosive offenses in the league, so I thought our defense really stepped up and showed who they are,” Bengals Coach Zac Taylor said.

Taylor’s hope is that this showing was merely a prelude. Awaiting the Bengals is a trip to Kansas City to face Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, the most explosive offense in the league, in Sunday’s AFC championship game.

The Bengals are 3-0 against the Chiefs in the past two years, and each victory was decided by just three points. Another high-scoring and tight battle is plausible, making the defense all the more important.

Taylor used the cliche of “complementary” football to describe his team’s performance Sunday. The offense’s early scoring was aided by the defense, which shut down the Bills’ first two drives and allowed Cincinnati to jump to a 14-0 lead.

But there was much more to the Bengals’ synchronized showing, which handed Buffalo a rare playoff loss on its home field.

It started up front with the pressure that Cincinnati’s defensive line created. And it started immediately.

On Buffalo’s first third down, the Bengals aligned with a single safety deep and rushed five. Defensive end Joseph Ossai slipped around left guard Rodger Saffold to swipe at Allen’s arm just as he pulled back to throw, sending the ball over the head of Stefon Diggs, his intended receiver.

“Our defensive line led the way by harassing [Allen], and everybody else fed off that,” Taylor said. “There was great communication on the back end. I’ll highlight the defensive ends because they really got the party started, but I thought our whole defense played excellent throughout the whole game.”

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Allen had, on average, 3.2 seconds to throw the ball against Cincinnati, well above his regular season average of 2.9 seconds, per Next Gen Stats. What’s more: The Bengals pressured Allen on 44.7 percent of his dropbacks, the highest rate he has ever faced in a postseason game, while sending the lowest blitz rate (17 percent) he has encountered in a playoff game, per TruMedia.

The Bengals mixed up their looks up front with “creepers” and “simulated pressures” in which they would send a nontraditional rusher barreling toward Allen while dropping a lineman in coverage. They also switched up their coverage schemes after the snap to create even more confusion.

“Our guys believe. They walk on the field ready to attack,” Taylor said. “We were taking the ball whether we won the coin toss or not. Those guys want to walk on the field and start attacking other teams, and that’s what happened today.”

Take the Bills’ second third down of the game. Cincinnati showed five defenders at the line before the snap, but two fell back in coverage. That left only three to pressure Allen.

No problem.

Defensive end Trey Hendrickson got around left tackle Dion Dawkins to bear-hug Allen, who unloaded the ball for an incomplete pass just before hitting the turf.

Or take the final play of the first quarter. The Bengals lined up with four linemen, but defensive end Cam Sample fell back in coverage at the snap as safety Vonn Bell rushed from the flat on the opposite side to sack Allen.

In Buffalo’s first drive of the fourth quarter, Cincinnati did it again. It lined up four on the line but dropped Hendrickson into coverage as slot cornerback Mike Hilton made a beeline for Allen, sacking him for a loss of seven.

“A lot of guys are tentative when their number’s called,” Taylor said. “[Hilton] just does a great job complementing all his looks, so then when he gets to pull the trigger and come, he makes the most of it. Just knowing, having played against all sorts of corners and safeties and nickels, the pressure, a lot of them, as soon they get blocked, it’s kind of over. He’s the opposite. He’s going to keep fighting through it and find ways to put pressure on the quarterback so they can feel his presence. Just a real instinctive player that way.”

The drive sputtered when Allen dropped back on a last-gasp fourth and six. The Bengals showed two safeties deep and locked up the Bills’ receivers after the snap. Allen danced around, waiting for someone to get open, and when the pocket started to collapse, he threw a dart to the end zone for Gabe Davis.

Apple was waiting and deflected the ball before it reached the receiver.