(Fans can vote for S Jessie Bates as the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week for Week 8 here. Voting is open_through Friday 10/2 at 3 PM ET.) _
Jessie Bates has been comfortable with the Bengals even before they drafted him. A month before when safeties coach Robert Livingston visited Bates for a couple of days in snowy Winston-Salem, N.C., he took Bates to lunch near the Wake Forest campus and the waitress could read the man-to-man coverage.
She wanted to know if they were famous and Livingston didn't bat an eye. He told her, yeah, they were professional poker players.
"I thought this was going to be all business and serious," Bates recalled Tuesday. "But I got the sense Rob was cool and it loosened me up a little bit. We gelled really quickly."
Livingston broke into the NFL as an area scout for Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin for three seasons before he joined the coaching staff in 2015, so he knows all about scouting trips. Maybe he joked about being a poker player because that's kind of what the draft is. Part of it is numbers. Part of it is the hand you're dealt. But a lot of it is reading the faces of not only the prospects, but the coaches and people around them, as well as storing up facts. A lot of it is going with gut, too.
"You're thinking this guy can be good," Livingston said of his lunch take. "I like to look into guys' eyes and ask them what makes them go, what makes them successful, what do they want to accomplish."
The eyeball test passed for the draft room. Mature beyond his years. Bright. Committed. The Bengals, of course, proceeded to go all in on Bates, Wake Forest's 21-year-old center-fielder. They not only took him in the second round, they gave him a slew of first-team snaps in the spring, then shoved all their chips into the middle of the table when they made him the starter by cutting George Iloka and his 76 starts after two preseason games. Then they cashed his pick-six Sunday that had as much to do with them heading into the bye at 5-3 as anything else.
"He's a baller. What you see is what you get," said Shawn Williams, the veteran safety who teams with Bates. "Jessie's really smart. He picks up things well. Everybody's athletic, but he has a feel for things that other guys don't have. That's what makes him good."
The Bengals drafted Bates to make plays on the ball and so far, so good. He's got three interceptions at the midway point and if he does it again in the final eight games he'll own the Bengals' rookie interception record with six. Cornerback Lemar Parrish set it in 1970 with five and safety Tommy Casanova tied it in 1972, as did cornerback Ray Horton in 1983, linebacker Odell Thurman in 2005 and cornerback Leon Hall in 2007.
That's a good sign for the long haul. The defensive backs on that list all ended up with at least 14 interceptions in stripes and Hall (26) and Parrish (25) are fourth and fifth on the club's all-time list. And it's OK now to talk about interceptions in Bengaldom.
After getting a mere 11 all last season they've got 10 after Sunday's first four-pick game in four years. Bates and Williams, who came into the season with just six interceptions in 74 games, are leading the way with three each as first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's push for turnovers is paying off with 13 in the first half of the season after they netted just 14 last season.
"Ball production is good," Livingston said. "It's Judgment Day 365 days a year for those guys. A blown coverage or a missed tackle and the whole world knows. They don't really see if a defensive tackle isn't in his gap. He's done some good things and not so good things. But I'll tell you what I told him. He can be as good as he wants to be."
ProFootballFocus.com says Bates has been pretty good. Excellent, you might say. His 587 snaps are the second most of any safety and of the safeties with at least 400 snaps the web site has graded him third behind Washington's D.J. Swearinger Sr. and the Rams' John Johnson III. Of the safeties that have played at least 200 coverage snaps, he's ranked fifth vs. the pass behind some good ones, such as the Colts' Malik Hooker, the Rams' Lamarcus Joyner, the Ravens' Eric Weddle and the Giants' Curtis Riley. Bates is the top rookie in both categories and that snowy visit to Wake Forest ended up providing some footprints to the mid-season point.
"We watched some film together," Bates said before Livingston worked him out at Wake Forest's pro day. "That stood out. Just talking about coverages and seeing if I knew the whole defense."
Livingston has seen up close how the data for prospects is shepherded by Tobin and video director Travis Brammer and disseminated to head coach Marvin Lewis and his staff.
"Marvin, Duke, Travis. They all give you the tools," Livingston said. "But you've got to get it from the horse's mouth, too," Livingston said. "We watched a couple of games. The good and the bad … You want to know how much of the big picture does he see? Is he just worried about his own keys? … Your notes may be completely different from what you saw on film. It might be, 'This guy has no clue.' (Bates) was the complete opposite of that. He had a good working knowledge of his defense."
They're still watching tape. Bates thinks that's been the biggest adjustment for him in his jump to the NFL.
"Details," he said. "You see how good these offenses are. It's a copycat league. You mess up something and the following week you're going to get it again, just out of a different formation. And the margin of error is the small things."
Livingston and Bates are still cool even though the coach is a hard sell. He says Bates is going to have to disprove the hackneyed narrative that rookies break down late in a 16-game season. He also got on him a bit for raising the pick-six ball up in the air and dancing at around the 3-yard-line. But he saluted the ensuing group celebration that consisted of a selfie of all 11.
If you want to know one of the themes Lewis is pushing during the bye, start there.
"Act like you've been there before. Run through the line. That's my NFL PSA for the day," Livingston said. "But you love the reaction of everybody. That's why we come to work every day. That's why we do this. At that point in the game, that's why you put in all the hours. Sheer joy. I love the picture. It takes everybody. Anything you can do to get everybody involved. He did his one-eleventh part and everybody else had to do their part."
For a couple of pro poker players, it's been a nice opening hand.