Bengals turn to defense on Day 2
CINCINNATI (AP) — Looking for more big plays out of their safeties, the Bengals drafted one who learned to track balls in the air while playing center field on high school fields in neighboring Indiana.
Jessie Bates III even hit a few home runs, too.
Cincinnati traded down in the second round of the draft Friday and focused on a defense that slipped last season, taking Bates III from Wake Forest with the 46th overall pick. They kept at it in the third round, picking defensive end Sam Hubbard from Ohio State and linebacker Malik Jefferson from Texas.
They added to all three levels of the defense — line, linebacker and secondary — in a one-day flurry.
“We did a lot in the early part of the offseason with our offense,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “We wanted to address the defense today. That was our plan, and we were able to stick to it.”
First, they went for a safety who has man-to-man coverage skills and a knack for being around the ball. He honed that skill while playing center field at Snider High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He also was a point guard on the basketball team.
“Baseball is the same thing: track the ball off the bat,” Bates said in a conference call. “It’s the same thing as reading the quarterback, reading his eyes. Basketball helped with that as well, with the anticipation, being able to read things, knowing how other players are thinking.”
The Bengals could see how it translated.
“Kids that play baseball have a phenomenal feel for looking over the shoulder and tracking balls either way, and he can do that,” safeties coach Robert Livingston said.
The Bengals had only 11 interceptions last season, tied for 10th-fewest in the league. Their safeties combined for three. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard led the team with two.
It was part of an overall slide by the defense, which finished 18th in yards allowed and 30th against the run. Coordinator Paul Guenther left to join Jon Gruden with the Raiders, and Teryl Austin was hired as his replacement. Austin ran a similar defense in Detroit, so Cincinnati won’t have to make a significant change in its schemes.
One thing that Austin wants is more turnovers out of his new defense. Bates is known for it. He had nine interceptions as a high school senior, and five — including two for touchdowns — at Wake Forest in 2016. He had one interception last season, when he was in more man-to-man coverage.
Bates recalled his interview with the Bengals at the NFL combine, which included several math problems as part of the mental drills.
“I’m not sure what their philosophy was behind that, but I killed it,” Bates said. “I don’t know if it was about quick-thinking or what.”
The Bengals have acquired three players from within driving distance — two from Ohio State — during the first two days of the draft.
They chose Ohio State center Billy Price in the first round on Thursday, a move to fix their biggest problem. The offense finished last in the league last season and has been the main focus of their offseason. Price grew up in eastern Ohio and was hoping to stay in-state in the pros.
They hit home with Hubbard, who grew up in Cincinnati and has regularly attended games at Paul Brown Stadium, including the Bengals’ playoff loss to Pittsburgh in 2005 when Carson Palmer tore up his knee on his first pass attempt.
Five years ago, Hubbard had committed to playing lacrosse at Notre Dame when Ohio State coach Urban Meyer decided to recruit him. During the process, Lewis happened to be in Columbus talking to Meyer when Hubbard called the Ohio State coach. Meyer put Lewis on the phone, knowing the impact it would make.
“That was a great recruiting tool,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard didn’t think there was much chance he’d end up playing for his favorite NFL team.
“I watched every game the Bengals played,” he said. “When they were blacked out on Sunday, I was really upset.”