If we really wanted to, we could end this article right here and just post this tweet, which was retweeted by none other than the titular player of this article.
Close game in Indy.— NFL (@NFL) October 18, 2020
Jessie Bates picks off Rivers with the @Bengals trailing by one. @jlbiii3 #SeizeTheDey
: #CINvsIND on FOX
: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app: https://t.co/nrm6deI4Td pic.twitter.com/HkUDKo6U1f
It’s completely fair if you forgot that Jessie Bates’s clutch fourth quarter interception during Sunday’s game was his first of the season. After all, Bates has practically been a part of every big play the Bengals’ defense has made through the first six weeks of play.
Bates’ turnover-less start to the season featured literally everything you could want out of a single-high safety aside from the turnover aspect of the job. He boasted a league-high 90.2 coverage grade and an 89.0 overall defense grade from the folks at Pro Football Focus. Both grades dwarfed the next-best defender for the Bengals, and the next-best safety from the entire NFL. The Bengals have rostered some of the best players at multiple positions in recent memory. This might be the first time in a while they have the best player at a position.
The argument for Bates playing like the best defensive back in football was already an easy one to make. How soon is too soon to be talking about something greater?
Think about the scene. The Bengals’ defense was reeling after a shutout first quarter. Philip Rivers and the Indianapolis Colts put together a perfect second period and turned a 21-0 deficit into a 24-21 game at the half. There wasn’t a single passing concept that wasn’t working against the Bengals’ defense for a legitimate hour-long quarter.
The Bengals managed to stop the Colts from scoring on their first drive of the third quarter, but Rivers would not be denied the next time he got the ball. Rivers tossed his third touchdown of the game and gave the Colts their first lead of the day. The Bengals’ offense responded with a three-and-out that included a penalty, a sack, and a 28-yard punt that gave the Colts great field position. Rivers was just 43 yards away from truly putting the Bengals away.
Not on Bates’ watch.
Rivers tried to go deep on the second play of the drive. He had Zach Pascal running open on a deep over route because the Bengals had just one defender deep: Bates. That route took Pascal in front of the 23-year old safety; he had inherent positioning to make an easy catch.
There’s no way Bates would be able to get there in time to make a play on the ball. And then he did.
When the game is on the line, the best players are able to make game-changing plays. Luck doesn’t enter the equation when preparation intersects with talent. Bates knew he had to make a play, and after telling Carlos Dunlap he would on the sidelines, he sure as Hell did.
Leading up to this game, the Bengals’ defense was statistically above average according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric and PFF had the unit ranked 10th in the league. Rivers’ surgical afternoon will surely damage Cincinnati’s defensive standing, but if it wasn’t for Bates, they wouldn’t have been ranked as high as they were. He’s been not only that good, but that valuable.
Even in this game, when Bates was essentially a non-factor for three quarters, he still managed to give the Bengals a legitimate chance to win. Rivers was incredibly accurate for the whole game and when he made one mistake, Bates was there to capitalize.
It would be difficult to argue that the defensive player of the year plays for a losing football team; as value is best identifiable when winning is attached to it. As long as the Bengals keep losing, the honor will get further away from Bates’ grasp, but there is no single player on that side of the ball that means more to their team than Bates does.
When a player top his peers in both production and value, the discussion usually stops there. Not this time. Bates is walking the walk, and we need to start talking the talk.