The Bengals’ 2017 defense can best be described as a dichotomy. The unit was one of the best in the league at sacking the quarterback, as well as one of the worst teams at getting tackles for loss. It was above average in defensive Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, but deployed a below average run defense unit. It was top 10 in points per play and yards per play, while also being the worst team in the league at creating turnovers. Most of the pieces in the unit were in place, but there were still vacancies and opportunities for improvement. One opportunity was to better utilize their safeties.
George Iloka and Shawn Williams are bonafide solid starters at both safety spots. In Paul Guenther’s defense, they weren’t true free or strong safeties, they played both positions as single high safeties, cover 2 safeties, and overhang and box defenders, and they’ve performed adequately at every role. In a way, both are physical representations of the entire defense, good at most things but not exactly great at anything.
This offseason, the Bengals showed they felt that sentiment to be true as they actively searched for another addition to join Iloka and Williams in the backend. They originally tried to sign Kurt Coleman before the start of free agency, but it was the Saints who ultimately won Coleman over. In April, the Bengals were the first team to bring in Eric Reid for a visit but a signing never manifested, possibly due to Reid’s ongoing protests during the national anthem.
A couple weeks later the NFL Draft arrived and the Bengals still were in the market for a safety. They had plenty of options on Day 2 and ended up selecting Jessie Bates from Wake Forest after trading down eight spots in the second round. The appeal with Bates is that he was considered one of, if not the best, ballhawking safety in the entire class, which saw six other safeties go off the board in the first 100 picks.
Bengals select S Jessie Bates III with the No. 54 pick pic.twitter.com/YtyvPYry0C— Bleacher Report NFL (@BR_NFL) April 28, 2018
The addition of Bates brings a complement to Iloka and Williams that they haven’t had since Reggie Nelson was on the team; a player with range and speed to roam the deep middle of the field in addition to effectively take away half the field in two-high looks. With this dynamic in the secondary back in the fold, it gives the incumbent starters flexibility and the freedom to play to their strengths.
Upon reviewing both Iloka and Williams’ 2017 film, one key difference popped up in the way each player defends the run. With Iloka, he made his most impressive run stops when aligned as an overhang defender inside or just outside the box, and generally appeared more effective in this position.
For starters, Iloka’s size and length give him a physical advantage keeping clean from second level blockers when scraping from the backside, and also in matching up with tight ends in man coverage. When he was attacking off the edge or acting as the force player, he played faster and more assertive than coming down hill from a two-high or deep safety alignment.
Safety Tackles <= 3 Yards Beyond LoS
Above is a list of every safety from last year who accumulated at least 20 tackles within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage per pro-football-reference.com. Iloka was in productive company playing this role last season, and his quality of play varied much more when he was positioned in a two-high role as a run defender.
Iloka is a good athlete for his size, but often times in space and reading the flow of the run, he hesitates and ends up either worsening the angle for himself or simply allowing the ball carrier free extra yards before coming in to make the stop. The difference as a run defender for Iloka between starting from the box and from a two-high shell was very noticeable in the sense of where he looked most comfortable. Luckily, Williams’ skillset as a run defender complements this perfectly.
Williams moves like a bullet, he screams downhill but in a controlled manner. He wastes little time clicking and closing toward the line of scrimmage and is an impactful hitter as well. Williams can be aligned in the box to defend the run, but since Iloka has shown a better knack for it, he doesn’t need to as much and can be counted on to play aggressively downhill against the run from a depth of a deep or two-high safety.
Bates is the key to maximizing these two. The Bengals want to rotate Bates in with Iloka and Williams and also have all three on the field at the same time. These personnel groupings would be what is called the big nickel package. Traditional nickel defenses deploy five defensive backs and two linebackers. In this variation, a third safety replaces one of the linebackers and acts as a box defender.
Essentially acting as a linebacker, the extra “safety” must be able to handle short/intermediate coverage duties such as hook/curl zones, and should be able to matchup against the tight end on the end of formation. He must also be able to play the run and handle second level blockers in the B and C gaps, or eliminate the edges as a force defender. George Iloka is the ideal player to fill this role, and with Bates and Williams maximizing their utility behind them, Iloka is free to play to the best of his ability.
As for Bates and Williams, their skillsets in coverage give defensive coordinator Teryl Austin options in coverage calls. He can show Cover 2 and run Cover 1/3 with Bates dropping deep and Williams creeping up to the middle of the field. He can also comfortably deploying traditional Cover 4 along with cloud coverage, where two safeties and a cornerback each take a deep third coverage responsibility. Williams doesn’t have Bates’ range as a deep safety, but is capable of handling a Cover 2 shell.
Even when the defense has only two safeties on the field, Bates’ presence allows Iloka to play overhang in Cover 1/3 looks as well as Williams. Because of Bates, the Bengals’ secondary has options and an injection of diversification that can add more turnovers and big plays to a defense that lacked both last season.