Two weeks into the 2020 NFL season, I wrote about Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III. I thought he was in line for a jump in production, as well as national relevance, that might be overshadowed by the lack of attention the Bengals’ defense elicits.
Much like Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons before him, Bates has steadily improved over the first couple years of his career, but his growth goes unnoticed because he spends most of his time off-screen, policing the deep centerfield as Cincinnati’s rangy safety valve.
Simmons’ national notoriety really took off his first year in Vic Fangio’s defense as his playmaking dialed up: Simmons totaled more pass breakups in 2019 than he had in his first three seasons combined. Bates is more so a center fielder than Simmons is, and their playstyles aren’t analogous—the comparison is one strictly of the leap Bates can expect as he continues to make plays. Bates is second in the talented safety class in passes defended since 2018 behind only Minkah Fitzpatrick (Pittsburgh Steelers) and trails Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee (Atlanta Falcons) by just one interception at the top of that leaderboard.
Well, that’ll do.
Bates’ 15 passes defended last season were three more than the next closest players—Darnell Savage Jr. and Fitzpatrick—and his 78 solo tackles were fourth. The pass breakups are wildly impressive and deserve their moment in the sun, but it’s also critical to note that Bates seemed to steady out as a tackler in space last year. Tackling has never been his strength, and he was on the wrong side of some Nick Chubb clips—but who isn’t in the AFC North? Altogether, Bates retained his hitting prowess while also delivering a more consistent body of work as the final line of defense on nearly explosive plays, which gives the Cincinnati defense another chance at the plate.
That defense isn’t very good, but Bates is a world-ending playmaker creating something out of nothing in the middle of it. Given license to roam and attack, Bates regularly makes plays in the intermediate area of the field, coming down from his deep alignment to attack digs and crossers with elite explosiveness and play recognition. On this concept, which he saw Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles, and then Week 14 against the Dallas Cowboys, Bates is so far ahead of the play that he nearly runs himself out of interception range.
Centerfielding safeties typically don’t produce on the ball as much because they play safe, discourage deep post shots, and accordingly allow for more incompletions into the intermediate hole and along the deep outside. But Bates is able to attack the intermediate hole shots with his explosiveness and play recognition, and he’s able to discourage the deep outside shots with his physicality and long speed. Whether forcing incompletions or simply punishing completions, Bates has an old-school vibe: sideline-to-sideline influence with punishing power. That he’s played three complete seasons is pretty shocking when you consider this violent play style.
In a surprise Week 8 win over the Tennessee Titans, Bates’ presence simply got the Titans out of their base offense. The Titans’ offense usually hammers the intermediate middle of the field, but with Bates playing centerfield, they avoided it heavily, instead working Ryan Tannehill on boots, sprintouts, and flood action that worked half of the field and avoided Bates. Here’s a deep out-and-up from Tannehill to Corey Davis. The Bengals initially give a two-high look, which forces Bates to get to this play from the opposite hash. He does and is able to hit Davis in stride to keep him out of the end zone. On the ensuing first-and-goal play, Bates is roaming the middle of the field as the Bengals play man coverage across the board. Tannehill makes a bad decision, and bang: Bates saves seven points with the pick.
Impact centerfielders are hard to come by, but at this point in his career, we can say with confidence that Bates is one. As the tackling improves, Bates will continue to accumulate absurd counting stats, which accurately reflect just how much he has to do to buoy a debilitatingly average Bengals defensive unit. The Bengals won’t make Bates the NFL’s highest-paid safety after his contract expires this year, but it is nice to think about what Bates could be on a talented defense, with legit cornerbacks that didn’t always need help down the field, and legit run-stuffers that didn’t leave him cleaning up the trash in the running game.
Fortunately, we can still say with confidence, despite the limits of his defense: Bates is the best centerfielder in the game right now. Other safeties may also be good middle-of-the-field players, and then bring added versatility to their defenses— Simmons, Budda Baker, Eddie Jackson—but if I need one person to play the middle of the field for one, gotta-have-it snap, I’ll take Bates over the field.