The talent has always been there for Jessie Bates III. He's only 23-years-old, but he's playing with the mind of a true veteran.
The Bengals' free safety has transformed his game. He's been their best defensive player this season. Bates is a big piece of their foundation moving forward.
What exactly did Bates do differently this offseason? How did his game evolve?
“I kind of used to take practice for granted. We’re out there just going through the plays," Bates said in an exclusive interview with All Bengals. "As far as my preparation that goes out throughout the week, it has been taken to the next level and that’s one of the biggest keys why I think I’m having so much success this year.”
Where some have struggled in Lou Anarumo’s system, other players like Bates have managed to thrive. His ability to flourish in 2020 has come from a combination of things, but a bigger key from his vantage point was forming a better relationship with his defensive coordinator.
“Every little thing I would be like, ‘why would he yell at me for that?’ But I’m kind of finally seeing why he would always be on me for the littlest things," Bates said. “Having Lou in my second year, I have a better relationship with him where I can ask questions and I don’t have to feel like I’m asking dumb questions or anything, or why he’s calling things, and what’s the weakness in that defense”.
Bates has been on the field for 90% or more of the Bengals' defensive snaps in every game this season. He's has proven his worth week after week as a dependable free safety alongside Vonn Bell.
The Bengals signed Bell to a three-year, $18 million contract in the offseason. It was one of many free agent additions on defense. Bates believes that's helped him expand his game.
“Having a guy [like Bell] that has had a lot of success on this team and coming from a really good defense as well, it tends to carry over with his leadership on the field." Bates said. "I give a lot of props to him and DJ and Josh Bynes, they’ve played a lot of football and they’ve been nothing but positive for us so I’m thankful for those guys”.
Another big change for Bates was embracing his Gen Z tendencies and moving towards technology. He gave up the pen and paper and switched to an iPad for note-taking during meetings. It's one of many things he learned from his new teammate.
“I would always have to go dig out a notebook and look at last year like ‘what did I get?’ Bates explained. “Vonn has all of these little tabs and I’m like ‘that’s awesome bro’ you can just go back and look at it. Right before training camp started I went out and bought a big old iPad like him so I thank him for that for sure.”
His note-taking has improved just like his Pro Football Focus ranking. Bates has a 91 overall rating according to PFF, which ranks first among all NFL safeties.
He admitted that personal stats are great, but he’s much more interested in seeing his team succeed as a unit.
“This year I’ve really tried to focus on being the solution for what we want in Cincinnati and making sure that I’m never the problem," Bates said. "I try to be perfect no matter what and my next step is bringing those guys along because I mean I can have a lot of success, but we can’t win games, or get to the playoffs, or win championships if I don’t bring guys along with me, so that’s something that I’m very focused on.”
What they want in Cincinnati is to win. Winning on the road is something the Bengals haven’t managed to do under Zac Taylor. He's 0-12-1 on the road since being named head coach in 2019.
Bates seems confident that the team will be able to solve their road woes on Sunday in the Nation's Capitol.
“It’s not fun at all losing,” said Bates, “especially when you have to hop in a bus and drive or be on a plane for an hour or two and watching film that you know you could have won. There are a lot of games that we’ve been very close to winning. It sucks with the plane always being very quiet and dark”.
Bates doesn’t plan on enduring another gloomy flight back on Sunday after the team’s 1 p.m. date with the Washington Football Team. They are 2-7 on the year, but thanks to a weak NFC East, Washington is still in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Bates hopes to crush those dreams this week.
“It will be fun to have a win and go home with a win. People talking to each other and acting like you like each other on the way back. That’s what winning brings you, it brings a lot of positive vibes around and it won’t be very quiet on the plane after this Sunday.”
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