BENGALS FS JESSIE BATES III VS. PATRIOTS QB TOM BRADY
Call it "Cool Hand Luke," vs. "The GOAT," when Bates' pesky defense challenges Brady's Greatest Of All Time offense during a Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) another one of those traveling Hall-of-Fame exhibits puts down stakes Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
After a rocky first half of the season the Bengals defense was in the NFL basement while forcing just six turnovers, they've played well enough to win during the last month. In the last four games they've allowed the ninth fewest points in the league while scrounging five turnovers. Bates has been in the middle of it all with all three of his interceptions coming in the last five games. He would have had his first two-pick game last week off Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield if not for the rare review reversal uncovering pass interference.
It would have been a big one, too, coming of a tipped ball from cornerback William Jackson III defending Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. Bates grabbed it and ran nine yards to the Browns 16 late in the game and the Bengals within a score. But he'll have to settle for six interceptions in his first 29 games to put him in the same neighborhood as the top three Bengals interceptors of all time.
(All-time leader Ken Riley had six in his first 26, David Fulcher six in his first 22 and Louis Breeden six in his first 37.)
This is how well he's playing. It was third-and-five and the Bengals were in man and Jackson was blanketing Beckham and Bates had been feeling it all day because Mayfield couldn't stop looking at him. And for some reason Bates didn't have his footing.
"I had a really good feel for Baker," Bates says. "He was staring at Odell all game. I was flat- footed in the middle of the field, which I shouldn't have been. If I didn't make that play, I would have been chewed out."
Like any NFL fan who grew up in the first decade of the 21st century, Bates spent his youth staring at Brady on TV. How young is Bates and how old is Brady? Bengals safeties coach Robert Livingston reminds you that even though Bates has played a lot football (he's taken at least 91 percent of all of his 29 possible games), he's still only 22, the fourth youngest on the team and could be a Wake Forest red-shirt senior right now. And, yes, Bates turned five in the month Brady won his first Super Bowl.
For a Colts fan who watched Brady over in Fort Wayne with grudging adulation while wearing an Edgerrin James jersey and revering Peyton Manning, Bates embraces this very tall ticket in the Bengals' cook run this week.
"Colts-Patriots. Peyton vs. Brady," says Bates, still a die-hard Peyton guy. "That's when the rivalry was at the all-time high. Legendary games. Just fun to watch."
But Livingston knows the moment won't be too big for Bates. He's the guy that calls him, "Cool Hand Luke," the name of the breezy character portrayed by Paul Newman in the 1967 classic, a film older than even the 42-year-old Brady. Bates' cool sometimes has made his coaches hot. And he needs to get a little stronger and clean up some inconsistent tackling. But Livingston loves the glacial steadiness.
"His hand never shakes. He's never too high, never too low," Livingston says. "Which can be frustrating at times. You wish there was a little more fire at times. But he's always the same. As a coach, that's all you can ask for. You show up and he's the same every day on the field and in the meeting room. And just look what he's done here. He was thrust into a starting role on defense sooner than anybody since I've been here and he hasn't skipped a beat. He's a prideful guy and asks the great questions. He's been sound all year. The guys on the outside have played really well and that's put him in position to play the ball in flight."
Bates is a second-rounder from 2018, one of the homegrown draft picks not taking heat and clearly one of the solutions in the Zac Taylor regime. He became Marvin Lewis' first Opening Day rookie starter on defense in nine years since linebacker Rey Maualuga and ended up being the first defensive rookie to start all 16 games in the 20 years since the great Takeo Spikes at linebacker. Under his third coordinator, Bates started slow like everybody else this season but now the plays are coming.
"The biggest thing is I've been able to key on quarterbacks, being able to read them," Bates says. "Before I wasn't really reading them out in the middle of the field. We're also stopping the run and forcing the quarterbacks to get the ball down the field and I've been able to make some plays on the ball because the defense is playing better as a whole."
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is making that happen with a healthier line, improved linebacker play and a perpetual sub package that, at times, features five defensive linemen and/or three safeties. No doubt Brady is going to try and exploit the middle of the field with the best receiving back in the game, James White, and back-field mate Sony Michel, to test just how much those backers have improved, particularly rookie middle backer Germaine Pratt. Brady is tough on young backers. In that '14 game in Foxboro he tore up the Bengals' Emmanuel Lamur in his fourth NFL start.
Bates says this week is the first time he's studied Brady after years of watching him on TV. He's just as impressed as the 10-year-old kid in Fort Wayne wearing James' No. 32. He knows Brady won't be staring at him. But he also knows Brady has to know where he is. And he'll know because he's Brady.
"He'll want to see where I am. It will be fun," Bates says. "He's great at looking off guys. I know that. That's what they're telling me. You have to study. When his hand comes off the ball. What's his routine? How does he go about throwing the ball? Does he pat it once before he throws? Twice. Where's his shoulder? All that stuff."
Anarumo knows one thing. You can't trick Brady hiding Bates in some kind of a designer disguise.
"There's no fooling Tom Brady," Anarumo says. "You just hope you're in tight coverage, you get a good rush and that's how you beat him. You're not going to fool a guy that's been great for 20 years. It's your technique. Our stuff has to be better than their stuff."
The Bengals always seem to get the unenviable task of playing Brady when he feels like he's been massively dissed and anyone who has borne the brunt of his cold-blooded competitiveness knows how that goes.
You'll recall in 2014 he was coming off a very un-Tommy game in Kansas City in which he threw for just 159 yards, the Pats got whacked, 41-14, and the Boston press spent the week burying Brady in the Hub graveyard of greats next to the likes of Ted, Yaz, Bird and Robert Gordon Orr. The next week, in the infamous On to Cincinnati Game, Brady promptly lit the Bengals for 43 points on 292 yards and 65 percent passing as the Pats went on to win it all with Brady as Super Bowl MVP.
The next and last time the Bengals met the Pats came in Foxboro in 2016 and they became the second victim on Brady's Revenge Tour in the wake of his four-game suspension in something called DeflateGate. This time he was damn near bionic in missing just six of 35 passes for 376 yards and a 140 passer rating in a 35-17 victory that would set the table for another title and another Super Bowl MVP.
Now with New England losing two straight, the pundits digging Brady another grave next to Paul Revere, Sam Adams and other great Patriots, plus this latest odd twist with the Pats being investigated for taping the Bengals sideline Sunday in Cleveland for a web site feature, and you figure Brady is itching to star in another comeback video.
Anarumo has lived it. As the Dolphins secondary coach from 2012-2017, he had some superb duels and tough blowouts with Brady. He was 4-7 against him, but when he was the Dolphins interim defensive coordinator in 2015, Miami shut down the Pats in 20-10 finale that cost New England home-field advantage in the AFC title game that Denver won. Brady's passer rating was 91 in those games, slightly below his career 97 rating.
Anarumo says that experience helps, but he's also seen enough not to believe the buzz. They're saying how he's too old and no longer good enough to overcome not having another Hall-of-Famer, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and other weapons. And if you can read lips, Brady has been urging separation on his receivers instead of seeing it.
Anarumo isn't buying any of it.
"I see the same guy on tape. I don't see any decline," Anarumo says. "He still throws it well. He's missing guys he's had the last few years, Gronk, but you still have the two backs to deal with and (wide receiver Julian) Edelman. That's part of their deal. They've been in the same system for years and years."
Hence that tight coverage and that big rush. Usually when Brady loses, it's because the rush makes him move his feet back there before he can tear you apart. Go back to the one time in seven games the Bengals beat Brady (13-6 in 2013 when they broke his streak of 52 straight games with a TD pass) and they sacked him four times and hit him eight times.
"He's a great, great player. His poise, his accuracy," Anarumo says. "He knows what you're in. The ball is going to be delivered faster and on time and in the right spot better than anybody has ever done it."
Now the little kid from Fort Wayne who wore a Colts jersey gets his shot.
"We've played some good quarterbacks," Bates says. "But this one is very special. A future Hall-of-Famer. When you play a guy like that, you have got to be able to take advantage when you get an opportunity."