A year ago, it was a weekly pleasure to report on how Jessie Bates III was doing as a rookie starter. In supplanting George Iloka at free safety, Bates’ immediately gave the Bengals’ defense a skillset they haven’t had since Reggie Nelson was patrolling centerfield in the orange and black. Bates’ first eight games put him in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, but his momentum slowed down as the season progressed into the season half.
For the beginning of his second season, Bates was looking more like the player from the final eight games of 2018 than the one from first eight games. Regression in year two is nothing abnormal for talented players, but the good ones usually figure it out before long.
Since Cincinnati’s Week 9 bye, Bates has been one of the better safeties in the NFL. Compared to all starting safeties over the past five weeks, he has Pro Football Focus’ ninth-highest coverage grade and his three interceptions are tied for first in the league at the position.
Bates’ resurgence from this season further validates the theory that player development is more nonlinear than anything. This is important to remember when looking at the rookies who are playing significant snaps for the Bengals this year. Not every player who reaches their potential follows the same developmental path, and this seems very evident for the Bengals’ two rookie starters after their latest game against the Browns.
Little, but noticeable improvements for Michael Jordan and Germaine Pratt
The Bengals’ offense saw Jordan re-inserted into the offensive line last week. Facing the Jets’ stout interior defensive line, Jordan struggled most when he was blocking in the second level. One week later, this was something that showed up on tape in a more positive light for Jordan.
mike jordan had a good day blocking in space. he had a few notable blocks after pulling, but i wanted to focus on just climbing to the 2nd level. this is good work considering how he's been in this area thus far. (he trips in the 3rd clip) pic.twitter.com/dvuKqCNzTl— john sheeran (@John__Sheeran) December 9, 2019
The sample size is small, but Jordan’s return to left guard has been promising relative to the disaster he was before he was benched. The bad reps are still there and they will continue to pop up because he’s still an inconsistent player fighting his own lack of technique. The difference between him and Billy Price is he has more length and athleticism to help him through initial losses. This is something the coaching staff surely recognizes.
Jordan’s stock deserves an upswing, but a matchup against the Patriots’ dominating defense will provide a useful perspective in determining where Jordan’s at.
As for Pratt, he’s been steadily improving as a starter as well. Ever since his disastrous game against the Raiders, Pratt’s slowly been transforming from a liability to an asset in an improving defense.
Germaine Pratt's PFF grades since being named the starter. pic.twitter.com/oApjSXo0mX— Jeaux Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) December 9, 2019
What’s helped Pratt the most is the offenses he and the Bengals have faced haven’t picked on him much in coverage. He’s only been targeted three times over the past three weeks and the one time he was involved in coverage during this game, he handled it pretty well.
Pratt ran into some slight trouble in run defense when chasing runs toward the sideline as a pursuit defender, but he continued to show why he’s been a clear upgrade over Preston Brown when shedding down-blocks and making stops.
Both Jordan and Pratt deserve credit for showing improvement as the season draws to an end. A matchup against the Patriots will provide a useful perspective in determining where both players are really at, though. Jordan will be tasked with keeping stout defenders such as Danny Shelton, Lawrence Guy, and Dont’a Hightower at bay.
Pratt’s biggest challenge will be constantly matching with crossing routes that Tom Brady loves to utilize. Perhaps the Bengals will use Jordan Evans instead of Pratt in obvious passing situations.
Oh yeah, these guys exist too
Auden Tate’s knee injury, which ultimately got him placed on Injured Reserve, didn’t impact Stanley Morgan’s playing too much. Morgan had already been rotating with Tate, Alex Erickson, and John Ross III for most of the game and had just one target come his way, though the throw from Andy Dalton was about four yards too short.
Morgan was also called for a face mask penalty in punt coverage, but was still graded as Cincinnati’s best special teams player by Pro Football Focus. Morgan currently possesses PFF’s 11th-highest special teams grade and should be listed as the Bengals’ option on the Pro Bowl ballot instead of Clayton Fejedelem. But that’s the reality of the Pro Bowl sometimes.
Fred Johnson has established himself as the offensive line’s sixth blocker and primary backup at tackle. His added presence has seen John Jerry inactive for the past couple of weeks and his athleticism gives him an edge over Jerry in this specific role. Johnson saw four snaps on offense as an extra blocker.
It wasn’t much, but we did see more of Renell Wren in this game than we have in recent weeks. His 19 snaps is the most he’s had since Week 7.