Bates ready to take next step with Bengals defense

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals defense took the spotlight in the playoffs last year, while paving the path to the Super Bowl. Now with almost the entire starting lineup back on that side of the ball, the Bengals expect even greater things.

Jessie Bates hopes to be a big part of that.

The fifth-year free safety held out of team activities in the spring and didn’t show up to training camp until the final week, as he wanted to protect himself from injury as long as possible before signing his $12.9 million franchise tag. After three weeks of practices, on top of what he did on his own, Bates said he is ready for the start of the season Sunday when the Bengals host the Steelers for the opener at Paycor Stadium.

“I feel pretty prepared,” Bates said. “That goes to thanks to having guys around me that know what they’re doing as well. But yeah, I feel comfortable with my physical and my mental, just getting ready to play on Sunday. … I’ve done a good job of making sure I’m prepared physically and then coming in and all the guys just knowing the cause. Me just doing the extra work, calling out certain stuff. I’m good.”

Bengals coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo both said Bates doesn’t seem to have skipped a beat despite all the time he missed with the team.

Rookie first-round pick Dax Hill had been filling into the first-team free safety role, while still trying to get in work at other spots where he might see action this season. Anarumo expects Hill to be on the field quite a bit even with Bates starting, but what that looks like he wants to be a surprise.

With both players in the mix, the Bengals can moved ahead with those plans, but Anarumo doesn’t feel like the team was set back in any way with Bates being gone as long as he was.

“Jesse’s going to do what Jesse has done here for the last X amount of years,” Anarumo said. “It’s been four years now, and Dax, we’ll plug him in in certain areas. And some sometimes they’ll be on the field same the same time, sometimes they won’t. We’ve just got to let it play out.

“While Jesse wasn’t here, Dax was practicing the roles that he’s going to do during the season in practice. So what those jobs are, I’m not telling you, because we don’t want to tell the league what we’re gonna do, but he’s been practicing all that stuff. … And so it really didn’t hinder Dax’s growth at all.”

Bates said he is in a better headspace going into this year than 2021 when he had thought he was next in line for a contract extension after Sam Hubbard got on before that training camp. His second time going through uncertainty for the future, he is more prepared, he said.

The last time Bates didn’t have an offseason or normal preseason, in 2020, he went on to enjoy his best season. rated him the top free safety in the league after the 2020 season. Bates struggled at the start of last year, as he admitted he let the contract situation get to him mentally, but he turned it up in the second half and throughout the playoffs.

“Obviously, we want to show more,” Bates said. “Like I said, this is a contract year, I think every year is a contract year, but being able to show what I can do with time being away, I think a lot of people will be looking forward to that. Like I said, it’s gonna be the same Jessie Bates. I think I’m gonna make a lot more plays. Just be ready. I think my preparation is gonna be a lot different.”

Bates thinks the defense can be more elite this year with everybody back. The only starter that didn’t return was tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who is now with the Steelers, but his backup B.J. Hill showed well in a rotational role and as a starter in the playoffs when Ogunjobi was injured.

On Sunday, a new post-Ben Roethlisberger era of the Pittsburgh offense will put Cincinnati’s defense to the test, as the Steelers are leaning on Mitch Trubisky to lead the way as the starting quarterback.

“I expect a lot of out the pocket stuff,” Bates said, when asked about expectations for the new-look Pittsburgh offense. “Obviously, Big Ben ... was a very veteran quarterback so a lot of the play calls were called from the offensive coordinator, but he had a lot of flexibility to be able to change calls, change them into RPOs. So it’s hard to kind of like watch film last year and years before against the Steelers because Big Ben had a lot of say-so. But I think with having a younger quarterback that can move around, we’ll see a little bit more boots, throwbacks, just stuff like that, that you have to be aware of more. I’m excited for the challenge.”


Steelers at Bengals, 1 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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