If you were to ask a Bengals fan who they thought was the best positional duo on the team was, it most likely wouldn’t come as a surprise for them to say A.J Green and Tyler Boyd. When Green was healthy in 2018, the offense looked nearly unstoppable.
While they wouldn’t be wrong with that answer, there is another positional duo on the other side of the ball looking to expand upon their surprising success from 2018.
It came as a shock when the Bengals released veteran safety George Iloka last offseason, being a fan favorite throughout his tenure with the squad. With the starting free safety gone, the questions started rising about who would replace him.
Knowing Mike Brown, the organization would look in the draft to find Iloka’s replacement rather than spend big money on a free agent. Guys like Ronnie Harrison and Justin Reid were on the table for the Bengals going into the second-round of the 2018 NFL draft, so it came as somewhat of a surprise when they decided to go with Wake Forest product Jessie Bates III.
NFL Analyst Lance Zierlein described Bates as a “Versatile safety option with the athletic ability to handle man coverage responsibilities in space and the instincts and ball skills to post ball production in zone coverage.” He proved to be exactly that and much more in his rookie season, starting in all 16 games for the Bengals and looking like a seasoned veteran week in and week out.
Bates’ play earned him a spot on the Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA) All-Rookie Team in 2018, a tremendous honor for any rookie NFL player. He seemed to always be around the ball, making plays from anywhere on the field. Bates III would finish the season with three interceptions, seven pass deflections, and 111 combined tackles. Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded Bates III a 79.9, the 11th best grade among all safeties last season.
Bengals strong safety Shawn Williams is a tough, hard-hitting, gritty safety, making him perfect to pair with a young guy who can fly from sideline to sideline like Bates III. Williams seems to always fly under the radar as one of the most consistent safeties in the league, and he makes this duo one of the best in the NFL.
In his 6th year in 2018, Williams played his best ball by far, racking up five interceptions, nine pass deflections, and 110 combined tackles. He would also make some of the biggest plays of the season for the Bengals on the defensive side of the ball, including a forced fumble against a Joe Flacco led Ravens squad on Thursday Night Football, and a 58-yard pick six versus the Steelers in the last game of the season. This breakout season would earn Williams a 71.7 overall grade from PFF, but a lot of Bengals fans know that this is only the beginning.
With the worst-ranked defense in the NFL in 2018, you probably wouldn’t have guessed Bates III and Williams would have played as well and consistently as they did. The two versatile safeties constantly made big play after big play, which is exactly what new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is looking for.
Of course, Anarumo comes from being the defensive backs coach for the New York Giants, a team with Pro Bowl players in the secondary like Janoris “Jackrabbit” Jenkins and Landon Collins. If the two can continue and even build on their success from 2018, the sky's the limit for them, and that should be exciting for all Bengals fans.