Bengals free safety Jessie Bates III is not only eyeing the Pro Bowl, but the last three games of a season that features games against two of the NFL's perennial titans of turnover margin.
With next Monday night's game at Paul Brown Stadium looming against a Steelers defense turning over the league the most and a PBS season finale against a Baltimore defense that has generated the second most fumbles, Bates knows the Bengals have to turn it over to turn over the AFC North.
Bates is still kicking himself for missing Sunday's interception against Dallas when he overran an Andy Dalton freebie, as well as keenly frustrated the Bengals couldn't force a turnover against a Cowboys offense that had coughed up the NFL's second-most turnovers.
At 10 p.m. Sunday, a good seven hours after the ball flew past him, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo got his "I got to make that play Coach," text.
"Going in throughout these games, we know what kind of situation that we're in. That we have to win the turnover battle, not lose it, to win these games," Bates said in a Monday media zoom. "It's already kind of hard doing that, just getting one. You've got to get multiple to win these games that we're in right now. I put blame on myself. I think that's where I think this team leans on me to get turnovers and I feel like I had an opportunity to change the game yesterday and I didn't. So I take blame on that on my part."
Everyone from Dalton to Anarumo to his six-year-old nephew got on Bates for not being able corral Dalton's pass at around the Bengals 30 late in the third quarter of a game Dallas led, 20-7. For Bates, it looked just like the one he didn't get in Philadelphia back in September.
"It's the same exact play against Philly, same exact formation if you go back and look at it on the film," Bates said. "I think that's where I've improved this year is just seeing what offenses are in, and I just haven't been able to make that play. Like I said, you go back and look at the Philly game, it's the exact formation, stack, everything, same break over in the ball.
"That's kind of been the definition of our season. We're just so close to doing those special things but I think Coach (Darrin) Simmons talked well on 'so close isn't good enough for this league, and so close gets you beat,' so that's going to be something I continue to preach about. So close isn't good enough, and we have to continue to raise our standard."
That's what has Bates so pumped about the final three games. The Steelers may have lost two games, but it is still Monday night against a talented ancient rival grinding for a No. 1 seed. And then there's two more great quarterbacks waiting in DeShaun Watson in Houston and Ravens defending MVP Lamar Jackson.
"I think you have to build some type of momentum, confidence, belief capacity, you can say all those words in these next three weeks against three really good teams. Good opportunities to see who belongs here on this team and who doesn't," Bates said. "We're still playing. People still have to play well to stay around. Its three great opportunities.
"You got Monday Night Football, prime time football against the Steelers, I mean you don't have to say much about that. And then you go to Houston and play, I think, one of the best quarterbacks in this league and then you've got the MVP coming in the last game of the season and they're fighting for a playoff game as well. So I think its three good opportunities to ruin some peoples seasons and see who belongs here."
Bates says it's not up him to publicly evaluate who belongs and who doesn't belong, but head coach Zac Taylor knows the fumbles don't. After the Bengals did something Sunday that hadn't been done in the NFL in seven years when they started the game fumbling on the first three straight series, they suddenly have 13 and are tied for the most in the NFL.
"We're never going to win any games if we play that way. So you have to first of all, make that an emphasis that we got killed in the turnover battle and we've got to be much better," Taylor said. "We've got to make those improvements. And defensively, we've got to keep punching, raking and when our hands get on the balls, we've got to pick them off. We had one opportunity there in the second half. We've got to do a better job creating turnovers."
No doubt Bates is going to keep hearing Dalton's admonition. He thinks he not only lost his 10th career pick, but a nice souvenir.
"Andy was joking around with me," Bates said. "He said, 'Hey man, you have to catch the ones I throw to you.' I've always been a big fan of Andy, and I just wish I could have picked that ball off. I probably would have had him sign it and everything. I'll be hitting myself on the head for that for a while."
Bates likes playing against the names while he's building his. He's always probing Anarumo for how his best safeties did it when he coached the Giants and Dolphins secondaries. Landon Collins. Reshad Jones. Louis Delmas. Pro Bowl types.
"He's always asking about other situations and other players. He's grown up and I think he's seeing the game better," Anarumo said. "It means a lot to him. He's a sponge. He wants to soak it all up. I'm happy with the way he's progressed. His tackling is much improved from a year ago."
PERSONNEL UPDATE: Taylor said quarterback Brandon Allen (knee) is day-to-day and he's the guy if healthy. Allen would become the eighth Bengals quarterback to start against Ben Roethlisberger: Dalton, Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, AJ McCarron, Jeff Driskel, Ryan Finley and Joe Burrow.
Also looking at an injury is rookie linebacker Logan Wilson (foot) …
Taylor reiterated Monday that he wasn't making a statement when he took out running back Giovani Bernard for the rest of the first half after he fumbled on the game's second snap, breaking his NFL-long active streak of 829 carries without a fumble.
Taylor had planned going into the game to rotate Bernard with Trayveon Williams and Samaje Perine. Williams, the SEC leading rusher out of Texas A&M and a sixth-round pick in 2019, didn't get his first NFL carry until last month and he fumbled on his fourth carry of Sunday's game and 10th of his career. He ended up with career-highs of 12 carries for 49 yards and it looks like they're trying to find what they've got in Williams and not dis Bernard. That's four yards per. Bernard is at 3.3 and Perine 3.8.
"Gio's a guy that's as reliable as anybody in the NFL. They got a good punch on his on the first drive. We planned to rotate those guys anyway, so him not getting any carries throughout the first half was more of just the plan that we had to get other guys involved," Taylor said. "Gio's as reliable as they come. Trayveon's a young guy. He's got to do a better job of ball security up to the point of the fumble. And then Alex (Erickson), on the jet sweep, the guy put his helmet right on it and the ball popped out. Those are three guys we're counting on." …
Rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins has taken notice of Williams when asked in his Monday media Zoom if there is anyone he's been impressed with on offense the past few games.
"He's been, stepping up really big these last few games, especially the last game," Higgins said. "He had that one fumble, but that didn't stop him. For him to come up and dominate the way he's been doing has been really impressive. To see him work every day in practice, He's a guy I really look up to and taking all the little things from him." …
Running back Joe Mixon (foot) is eligible to come off injured reserve, but hasn't. Also on the table with three games left is getting him ready for 2021. TBA.
"It remains to be seen if we'll get him back this week or a later week, but today I don't anticipate activating that window," Taylor said. …
Taylor also wasn't giving any clues on the offensive line, where made as change on the left side before the game (replacing guard Michael Jordan with Xavier Su'a-Filo) and during the game at tackle when he replaced Hakeem Adeniji with Fred Johnson. If that's how he starts Sunday, it will be the eighth straight different starting offensive line.
"I expect Mike to respond the right way. I feel like he has," Taylor said. "He wants to play football, he wants to continue to improve. We've got to continue to evaluate what our best lineup is up front." ...
Taylor said Austin Seibert gets another shot to kick again against the Steelers ...
TEED UP: Higgins has some nice numbers. He's second behind only Justin Jefferson among rookies for yards and third behind Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb for catches. But you'd have to tell him that. When he was asked if he was aware that he's on pace to become the first Bengals rookie with 70 catches, Higgins asked in his media Zoom, "How many do I have?"
When told he's got 58, he said, "I should get it."
So, no, he's apparently not a numbers guy. The record is Cris Collinsworth's 67 in 1981. A.J. Green, Higgins' idol, had 65 in 2011.
"I didn't know I was on pace for that," Higgins said. "If I get it, have my name in the history books as a Bengal it will be a dream come true to have my name in the history books here. It's my favorite team. It would be an honor."
Higgins says he's taking notes on how Green has handled a very tough year of 41 catches for 419 yards.
"Just seeing him come to work every day with the mindset he's going to dominate no matter what. That's really big having that mindset," Higgins said. "He could have easily just quit. Basically. And say I'm getting no balls, I'm not being who I have been. Just seeing that. It's great to see behind that mindset. Me coming in as a rookie, seeing him do that and not have great games or not having a great season, you have to attack the day every day."