Kurt Tippmann said he already knew how the story ended.
He followed along to the eventual outcome earlier this week as Bengals’ safety Jessie Bates described his steps and body language in baiting Dolphins’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Sure, Tippmann had already watched the play: Bates’ second interception of the season sealed the Bengals 27-17 victory on Sunday. But the long-time football coach at Snider High, where Bates starred in Fort Wayne, Indiana, had seen similar stories play out many times before.
“He made countless plays like that for us where it wasn’t necessarily the guy he was supposed to be covering, but he knew where the ball was going and he was right,” Tippmann said. “It makes us as coaches look good. You think you coach that up, and really it’s his preparation and his studying.”
LOVE THE BENGALS? Subscribe today to get access to all of our coverage
No, Tippman says, he’s not surprised Bates can do these things. But the rookie has been a revelation for the Bengals, who fast-tracked his opportunity by drafting him in the second round and releasing long-time starter George Iloka in August.
Bates leads the team in interceptions, ranks second in tackles, and, according to Pro Football Focus, is the fifth highest-graded safety in the NFL (among those with at least 100 snaps played)
- Earl Thomas, Seattle (injured): 91.3
- Eddie Jackson, Chicago: 90.1
- Tedric Thompson, Seattle: 87.6
- Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers: 85.8
- Bates: 83.9
“For a young guy coming out playing basically every down from day one is a pretty daunting task,” said Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. “So far, knock on wood he’s done well.”
Bates has played 98 percent of defensive snaps, allowed a passer rating of 58.8 on throws into his coverage area and has held his own against the run.
And, as Austin continued: “I expect he’ll continue to get better as the year goes on. I’m happy where he is, he’s got a lot of room for growth and improvement.”
That’s because Bates doesn’t turn 22 until February.
“He’s still just a kid,” Bengals secondary coach Robert Livingston said. “He’s supposed to be a junior in college.”
More: Cincinnati Bengals notes: Special teams under fire, Tyler Boyd makes it personal
More: Andy Dalton mic’d up for NFL Films vs. Miami Dolphins: ‘We’re good, guys, everybody chill’
He played just two seasons at Wake Forest after showing up at 170 pounds and redshirting his first season. And, further demonstrating how close he is to the front end of his professional career, when Bates returned to Snider High this week to see Tippmann and former teachers, there were current Panthers’ players who remember sharing a locker room with him.
“It’s funny because I went to school with the seniors now,” Bates said. “They were freshmen when I was a senior, so it’s kind of funny that I was in high school about three-and-a-half years ago, and now I’m in the NFL. Such a blessing.”
But the youngest player on the Bengals defense does not act his age, according to veteran Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
“The guy’s so smart,” Kirkpatrick said. “He’s got a bent for the ball. He’s not one to debate everything. When somebody brings something to his attention, he checks it off and he tries to learn from it. I feel that’s the most important thing.”
The potential of Bates as a potential interception machine is a welcome sight in the Bengals’ secondary. Last season, safeties Iloka, Shawn Williams and Clayton Fejedelem accounted for just three interceptions. That’s major falloff from the days of Reggie Nelson, who led the team with eight picks in 2015 and seemingly had Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s number. Nelson intercepted Roethlisberger five times, including three times in the 2015 regular season.
The Bengals have intercepted Roethlisberger passes just three times in four games since Nelson left as a free agent.
A playmaker like Bates’ could prove to be the difference this weekend and beyond.
“I think he’s got a great feel,” Livingston said. “That’s stuff you can’t coach. And then he knows the plans, the strength of the coverage and where he’s supposed to be. The ball has kind of found him.”
Bates’ penchant for studying football, Tippmann said, became noticeable his junior year. He always had athletic ability and size – he played center field in baseball and a point guard in basketball – but Bates seriously set out to understand why certain defensive calls were being made and what offenses were trying to do to exploit weaknesses.
That’s abnormal at the high school level, Tippmann said. And, through college (where had six interceptions) and now in the NFL, it’s the reason cliches apply. People say Bates has a knack for the football. He just makes plays. His instincts take over. But those things are true because he works to understand the why behind the what.
“I’m working on understanding what our weaknesses are and how teams are trying to attack me and my teammates,” Bates said. “I think that’s the biggest part of it is learning what offenses are trying to attack and why we’re running defenses in certain situations.”
As understanding comes, so do plays. And that’s how trust between players and coaches is formed.
“There’s guys that just have a little savviness about them that are willing to take some of the risks, that are confident enough to take the risk that some other guys aren’t,” Tippmann said. “It’s hard to coach because in the scheme of whatever you’re doing structurally, you have rules that you need to follow so that the whole thing works. But you need a guy sometimes that will kind of violate the rules because he knows something that’s going to happen and he’ll make a play because of it.”
Like on Sunday, when Tannehill appeared to see an open window to complete a pass. Bates told Tippmann he saw the receivers’ routes develop and hoped for an attempted deep pass.
“He saw the quarterback load it up to throw it and he knew, here it comes,” Tippmann said. “He was able to make a great play.”
That reminded Tippmann of another Bates’ story.
His junior year, one of Snider’s biggest rivals used a pick play – with a receiver lined up outside running across the field to free up an inside man toward the sideline – for a long gain. Later in the game, they tried the same play near the goal line.
Bates broke away from his assignment, intercepted the pass and ran 99 yards for a touchdown.
“If he would have followed the structure of the defense, they’d have scored,” Tippman said. “But because he knew what was going to happen, he had the ability to put himself in the position he needed and made the play. It’s just things like that. Those scenarios were repeated.”
Tippmann says he’s hopeful another scenario repeats itself. Snider High produced another dominant safety in a different era: Hall of Famer Rod Woodson.
Bates tied Woodson’s high school record with nine interceptions in a single season. Woodson reached out to Bates last week to congratulate him on the strong start.
“Hopefully,” Tippmann said, “(Bates) will be able to stick in the NFL like the other guy did.”