Editor’s note: This was written following the Bengals’ first preseason game, but with the release of starting safety George Iloka on Aug. 19, Bates now is set to become a rookie-year starter for the Bengals. In that light, this just became a lot more interesting.
He didn’t play during Chicago’s opening possession, but safety Jessie Bates joined the first-team defense within the first seven minutes of the Bengals’ preseason opener. Bates, currently listed as Cincinnati’s backup free safety, played 29 snaps on Thursday.
Starting FS George Iloka re-entered the game early in the second quarter at strong safety alongside Bates. Pre-draft analysis on Bates included phrases like “quick in coverage transitions,” “impressive fluidity,” “instinctive,” and “pattern recognition.”
“I think he does have range,” said defensive backs coach Robert Livingston after Cincinnati selected Bates in the second-round this year. “He does have versatility... His pure athleticism probably shows when he has it. He knows what to do. He can track the ball well, which is what you like.”
Many of these attributes surfaced last Thursday.
With 2:16 remaining in the first, Bears quarterback Chase Daniel flipped a swing pass to running back Taquan Mizzell. Bates watched the play develop — he was either in man coverage against Mizzell or tight end Adam Sheehen — and attacked Mizzell once Daniel committed. Bates broke down and forced Mizzell to redirect upfield, where linebacker Jordan Evans joined Bates in giving Chicago’s running back a monstrous hug.
“The biggest thing for him is handling the different ins and outs of the game — the situation, the down and distance, field position and all those things,” Marvin Lewis said Tuesday. “We have been pushing him in (the game) early, and you want to see him take command when he has to take command. He could end up being the guy back there real quick. You have to keep urging Jessie to move forward.”
Let’s fast-forward to the 13:39 mark in the second quarter. Chicago, on Cincinnati’s 11-yard line, is threatening. Daniel secures the shotgun snap and hands off to Mizzell, who drunkenly avoids Ryan Glasgow, accelerates past Sam Hubbard, navigates around a James Daniels block on Chris Baker, and finds a clear path toward the endzone.
One man stood in his way.
OK, so Bates absorbed a pretty big hit, but as the last line of defense he did his job. The mothership pointed out this play specifically in a recent blurb on Bates’ progress.
He got his first big hit out of the way in last Thursday’s pre-season opener. Even Bates has been wondering about that, not because he can’t do it but because he felt he took some poor tackling angles during his last season at Wake Forest and wants to improve. When Bears running back Taquan Mizzell squirted up the middle in the red zone during the second quarter, Bates hit the 185-pound Mizzell the way a 205-pounder is supposed to hit another little guy and stopped him at the Bengals 3 to keep an eight-yard burst eight yards.
“There’s a small sample of everything, but he’s been good,” Livingston said. “You look at that play. Except for maybe one or two plays in practice, that’s the first time he’s tackled someone in about seven months and he stepped up in the gap. So far, so good.”
The second-round safety posted two tackles and allowed one reception for three yards.
Chicago nearly hit a big play with 7:22 remaining in the second. Daniel found Javon Wims over the middle. This is an example where reviewing plays can get tricky. Was Bates slow to pick up Wims in zone coverage, or did Hardy Nickerson release Wims too soon? Without knowing what the play call was (it looked like Cover 4), it’s difficult to say.
Cincinnati may have found a gem in Bates, and the coaching staff seems eager to see more of him.
Frankly, so are we.