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Film Breakdown: How Jessie Bates Has Become One of the NFL's Best Safeties

The 24-year-old is the best player on the Bengals' roster.

Jessie Bates had an astounding year in 2020. Whether you measure that through Pro Football Focus, media praise, or his second-team All-Pro nod—he emerged as one of the NFL's best safeties. 

Bates allowed a 42.3 quarterback rating, a 54% catch percentage, and just 5.08 yards per attempt. If a quarterback posted those numbers over an entire season, that player would be worse than JaMarcus Russell (who finished with a career 65.2 QB rating).

Maybe all of these stats and opinions from other people are enough to make you fight the good fight on Twitter about how he “needs to be paid” and “is the best safety in the league." 

Personally, I’m a film guy, so all of this is nice, but I would not crown him until I saw him make spectacular plays on film. 

Whether it’s man coverage like the "Honey Badger," Earl Thomas’ deep middle-of-the-field ability, huge hits like Brian Dawkins, or Troy Polamalu’s ability to go from the roof of the defense to make a stop in the run game—I need to see it on film. 

Not only did Bates make spectacular plays on film last season, but he also made plays reminiscent of those great safeties. One by one, I will show you Bates' ability to play man coverage, the deep middle third, big hits, and run stops just like the aforementioned players.

Starting with Bates in man coverage, let’s watch some plays of him isolated one on one with tight ends. 

On this play, Bates is singled up on the backside of a 3x1 with the Bengals' defense in cover one hole. Cincinnati is in man-to-man with one deep defender (Vonn Bell) and one underneath hole defender (Logan Wilson). 

From the middle of the field, Gesicki is lined up just about on the divider and Bates is playing inside leverage against him. That means he will be playing inside and on top of the receiver. If Bates simply gave up the back shoulder throw you could still argue he played this well, but he refuses to let Gesicki box him out and make the catch. He reaches through Gesicki’s body and hands to break this ball up. A fantastic showing of his man coverage ability, but this was not the only time he was tasked with stopping the tight end. 

This man coverage is slightly different, as Bates disguises himself to appear as if he is playing deep middle of the field. Instead, he ends up man-to-man against Tyler Eifert. 

Knowing that this is a zero blitz (man-to-man blitz with no deep defenders), he needs to act fast to close that distance so that Gardner Minshew can’t throw to Eifert quickly.  Bates reaches through the TE’s hands again and knocks the ball up into the air. Thus, allowing Jordan Evans the easiest interception of his career. 

Lastly, for the man coverage section, we have this play against former Charger, now Patriot, Hunter Henry.

Bates starts with absolutely terrible leverage because he is in the middle of the field as part of a disguise. He makes up for this bad starting position with quickness, smarts, and the ability to perfectly get his hand in between the receiver’s hands to smack the ball away. This is yet another pass breakup playing man coverage against a talented TE, which as I stated earlier is reminiscent of Tyrann Mathieu.

Next, I want to examine Bates' excellent range—which is arguably the most important skill in his arsenal. With the range to go to either sideline from the deep middle of the field, he allows the defense to play in single high coverage more often than not. This, in turn, allows the defense to be gapped out against the run. Being plus one and gapped out makes it easier to stop the run without giving up much against the pass because of Bates’ range. 

This is a fire zone (5-man zone pressure with a defensive lineman dropping) where Bates sprints from just about the exact middle of the field all the way to the sideline to make a diving pass break up. He reads Ben Roethlisberger very well, knowing he would like the one-on-one matchup between Diontae Johnson and a cornerback that was recently signed from the practice squad. Bates gets into a full sprint to break up this pass which was slightly under thrown.

This is a similar play to the last one, except we get cover 1 man without an underneath defender in coverage. Bates goes from around the middle of the field to the sideline to break up this pass. It is absolutely insane that he had this type of range multiple times this past year. 

This one is also similar to the past two, but it is another example of Bates making a high-level safety play that is rare in the NFL. He goes from the opposite hash to the sideline in his greatest feat of range yet. Another pass breakup and another highlight of his special ability. The processing, instincts, and athleticism to go from the middle of the field to anywhere on the field in order to break up passes is reminiscent of (Earl) Thomas. This is the most critical of his abilities as a safety—when you can go to either sideline as the post safety, it allows you to play with an extra man in the box versus the run. Bates was so good as the deep middle safety this past year that he essentially played the job of two safeties, much like Ed Reed or Thomas.

Despite Bates being a free safety and more of a coverage guy, he can still hit guys with force. 

Here we get Jessie Bates using the hit stick against the Jaguars’ WR who runs a corner route to get into the soft spot of Tampa two. The corner route is basically impossible for the safety to defend here, but Bates does the next best thing and absolutely levels the guy. 

This play shows off both Jessie’s range and his power when hitting guys. He goes from the middle of the field to the sideline on this pass and, while he does not break up the pass, he still crushes Mike Williams like a runaway semi smashing into an electric pole. Williams holds onto the pass, but he’s bruised and probably a little worse for wear after that hit.

While I think the ability to hit guys with authority is a very fun trait, it’s probably the least useful for a post safety like Bates. It is entertaining to see that he can still inflict pain as a smaller free safety that thrives in coverage. I’ve always enjoyed watching the (Brian) Dawkins type of safeties that can hit guys so hard that the ball comes out. Despite Bates not breaking up any passes or forcing any fumbles in these clips, he displays an ability that makes me believe he has the potential to force a fumble like Vonn Bell did against Juju Smith-Schuster.

Lastly, for Bates’ abilities as a safety, I am going to go over his strength to stop the run. Despite playing mostly as a deep middle of the field safety, he's topped the 100 tackle mark in each of his first three years. This is due to his ability to come off the roof of the defense and make stops against the run. 

Here is our first example of Bates' ability to against the run. On this play, the Bengals are in a two-deep look pre-snap and the Steelers are running a draw play. Bates gets a little help from Mike Daniels who is bullying the recently retired Pouncey into the backfield. This penetration holds up the running back for just a moment, which allows Bates to read the play and come off the top of the defense to make this stop. 

For the next example, let’s go to the game against New York with Bates aligned pre-snap as the deep middle of the field defender. The Giants open up a hole in the A gap between the center and right guard by getting solid blocks on the 2i (defensive tackle lined up on the inside shoulder of the guard) and 3T (DT lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard). 

Bates is quick to recognize what is happening and comes down to make a stop against Gallman in the hole as the last line of defense.

My final example of his run-stopping prowess shows Bates playing in the box as essentially the Sam LB in 4-3. Xavier Williams gets great penetration against the center, forcing a jump cut to the backside. On the backside, Bates has started to run through and fill his gap. Notice the very slight turn of his body and shoulders to take on the contact with the tight end on his shoulder, rather than giving up his chest. 

This allows Bates to shed that block without any problem. After that, he wraps up the ball carrier’s legs and brings him down to end the play. 

All three of these examples show Bates’ ability to get into the backfield from anywhere and make a play against the run. He is not just making tackles after the Bengals' linebackers whiff downfield. Bates is jumping into the fray and doing the dirty work himself. This reminds me of Polamalu and how he would find a way into the backfield to make tackles for a loss or no gain.

While Bates’ skillset compares favorably to these Hall of Fame caliber safeties, it's too early to put him on that pedestal. He has only had this extremely high level of play for one year. However, he flashed this high-level ability in his first two seasons, but he didn't do it consistently. 

With Bates playing at an elite level play and possibly on his way to becoming the best overall safety in the entire National Football League, the Bengals need to extend him. 

Cincinnati has the money to give him an extension with room to spare. He's proven himself worthy if a big money contract. He's one of the rare elite-level safeties that truly make a discernible difference in both the run and pass game. All of the above abilities display his rare traits, but that is not to say he lacks faults in his game either. He still needs to work on his tackling form [he misses about 10% of his tackles every year], but that drawback does not take away from the elite-level play he demonstrated in 2020. 

Pound-for-pound, Bates is by far the best player on the Cincinnati Bengals. It would be a mistake to not extend him before the season starts.

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