Bye weeks are a time for NFL teams to rest up, reload, and get prepared for the final portion of a long season. Unfortunately for the Cincinnati Bengals, they came out of the break with a secondary on its last leg.
The Bengals were forced to play Tony Brown against the Steelers, a veteran that they primarily use on special teams. He was their sixth cornerback entering the season. With Darius Phillips and LeShaun Sims out and Mackensie Alexander suffering a concussion early in the contest, they turned to Jalen Davis. A back end of the practice squad defensive back. He wasn't spectacular by any means, but it could've been a lot worse for these Bengals’ corners if they weren't getting such great play from their last line of defense.
Safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell have been arguably the most reliable position group for Cincinnati this season. This is their first season together.
It's hard to tell they haven't been The Jungle's last hope on defense for years. Bates (599) and Bell (605) trail only Joe Burrow (659) in Bengals' snaps played this season. On a defense riding the rough injury seas, Bell and Bates have been a valuable compass.
It all starts with the ball-hawking Bates who might be the best free safety in the NFL. Outside of the first Cleveland matchup, Bates has been magical week in and week out. He is Pro Football Focus' highest-graded safety, earning a 91 overall grade. He finished with an 88.2 grade against Pittsburgh. Bates has blossomed in his third season and has the freedom to make plays on the back end.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has used Bates like a queen on his chessboard. The young player no longer struggles with missed tackles like he did in the past. Bates has cut his 2019 missed tackle rate in half. He leads the NFL with 50 tackles from the free safety spot. Rounding the rough edges of his game has left Bates with more room to freestyle in coverage.
The Wake Forest-product has three more passes defensed than any other safety, all while allowing 3.6 yards per target and a 37.5% completion this season. Those blow away Bates' previous best marks.
He has turned this position into one of the team's biggest strengths, but Vonn Bell has been pulling his weight as well.
Bell is a unique player on this defense because he has to be out there on every play. The coaches send calls into Bell's helmet, and he relays them to the other ten players. The former-Buckeye has played every snap on defense this year and is right behind Bates (64) for the team lead in tackles with 61.
To put into perspective how much of a lifeline the safeties have been for the Bengals, Bell had 85 tackles in 13 games last season with the Saints. He is on pace to shatter his career-high of 86 tackles. Without Bell, this defense would be hemorrhaging even more explosive plays. Among secondary players with 60-plus tackles, Bell has the second-highest tackle depth (9.2 yards), according to Sports Info Solutions. The Bengals and Buffalo Bills are the only two teams in the league that have multiple secondary players with more than 60 tackles. Bell is sticking his nose into some tough spots to help stem the bleeding, but he needs to pick up the slack in pass coverage.
Teams are picking on Bell every week. He's already been targeted 39 times this season, which is eight more than at this time last season. Year in and year out opposing tight ends choose their Bengals victim and this season it's been Bell. The fifth-year safety has given up a team-high five touchdowns in coverage and is allowing the second-worst passer rating on the team (127.1).
Bell hasn't been able to lean more heavily into his strengths closer to the line of scrimmage because the Bengals haven't had that luxury. Whether it's COVID issues or injuries, Cincinnati has needed Bates and Bell to be Swiss Army knives.
That has opened up Bates' strengths in coverage, while Bell is more of a Jamal Adams type. He's very physical and thrives closer to the line of scrimmage.
It could be a product of a drop-off in talent around him, but Bell has posted an 11% pressure rate this season after never falling below 21% in New Orleans. In an ideal world, the Bengals would use their defensive play-caller closer to the line of scrimmage, but the 2020 season has been anything but ideal.
Bates and Bell are stalwarts on a defense that doesn't have much to be proud of at the moment. When Carl Lawson has 26 pressures and the next closest player has six, it's hard to succeed as a defense.
Alas, The safety duo is weathering the storm as best they can, hoping some reinforcements show up in the years to come.
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