Jessie Bates has been lauded for his ball hawking skills and football IQ, but the Cincinnati Bengals needed to see he could tackle as well before clearing a path for him to become the starter at free safety.
The second-round draft pick apparently showed them what they needed to see Saturday in the Bengals’ preseason win over Dallas.
Bates finished with a game-high four solo tackles, and the next day, the team announced the release of George Iloka, who would have been a sixth-year starter for Cincinnati this season.
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“When we watched him coming out we knew he had really good movement, really good range,” Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “He got around the ball. The biggest issue was how is he going to tackle in our league? He’s shown a willingness to tackle. He’s been a really solid tackler, really good angles, getting guys down. That was the one question we needed answered.”
Bates had five interceptions and 100 tackles as a freshman at Wake Forest in 2016, but he believes his tackling ability has been an underrated part of his game.
He’s placed a greater emphasis on improving his tackling this preseason in order to prove he is a complete defensive back, and Saturday was a big step.
“I haven’t been able to show the ball skills and stuff like that yet, so I think one of the things I been focusing on throughout the offseason is my tackling,” Bates said. “I think that’s something that everyone kind of downplayed me, coming out as a safety. I think my tackling in college wasn’t as good, so I’m continuing to work on that and I think that was a big part of Saturday for me.”
This week will provide another opportunity for Bates to prove himself. The Bengals head to Buffalo for their third preseason game Sunday, and this is the first one for which they are actually game-planning.
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Bates said it’s a chance for him to show how well he knows the playbook and put his football IQ to the test.
“I feel like I’m pretty good with digesting offenses and being able to learn the playbook,” Bates said.
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said that’s part of what has helped Bates earn the respect of his teammates. Bates already was making calls on his own Saturday and in that regard he was playing more like a veteran.
Austin doesn’t expect Bates to be perfect, but what he brings to the table outweighs what he might lack in experience.
“He’s going to grow and make some mistakes,” Austin said. “He’s going to have some questions and they are going to have some bad plays. It’s going to happen. When you look at his upside and ceiling, I really think he has a chance to be a really good player and help us in terms of turning the ball over and as a field general and getting us lined up. I think he is really bright.”
Bates came out of Wake Forest after just two seasons on the field but said his youth won’t be an excuse for mistakes in the NFL.
The pressure will be on him to immediately perform, especially as he tries to fill the shoes of a seven-year veteran like Iloka, but Austin is confident he is ready for the challenge.
“I think he’ll handle it,” Austin said. “The nice thing about the kid is it’s just football to him so all of the other stuff doesn’t really matter. That’s what you look for. Even in the first preseason game when he had an opportunity to get in there it wasn’t like it was anything different. In his mind, ‘I’m just playing football like I’ve been playing all my life.’ I thought he handled it well. I don’t think there will be any real difference as we move forward. There will be some times maybe he’ll be a little inconsistent like some rookies are, but I think he’ll handle that and adapt.”
Bates’ ability to remain composed will help as well, Austin noted. He handles himself like someone who belongs.
“You can tell he’s paying attention,” Austin said. “He’s not a guy who does a lot of joking around and playing around. Sometimes you’ll see guys that (do), because they don’t quite know what (they’re) doing, but he’s serious about everything he’s doing. That’s good for him in terms of how he’ll handle things and I think he’ll stay off the rollercoaster.
“The season can be a rollercoaster and if you start riding it like that your performances are going to suffer, but I think he’ll fight the ups and downs and keep it steady.”