ATLANTA — On Friday night, one of the many new faces on the Atlanta Falcons joined four of his teammates at Atlantic Station downtown for a season kickoff with fans. Jessie Bates III said he could feel the “energy.” He also could have used the word “angst.”
“They have been waiting,” Bates said. “I feel like they have been waiting for a while for us to be good again. They deserve it.”
Bates made sure Sunday that at least for one day Atlanta fans got to feel good, leading his new team to a 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers in the season opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was the Falcons’ first win in a season opener since 2017, which is also the last time they went to the playoffs, and it put them over .500 for the first time at any point since the final game of that season.
“It definitely lets this team know what’s possible. It’s huge,” Bates said. “We will celebrate tonight. Next week we have to go right back to work. It’d be easy to go right back to .500.”
Not if Bates keeps playing this way. He had two interceptions and a forced fumble against the Panthers, and all three turnovers led directly to Atlanta points. He also tied for the team lead with 10 tackles and had a team-high two passes deflected.
“My boy JB did his thing today, had the hat trick,” Falcons safety Richie Grant said. “I’m just going to be honest, I haven’t seen that since college, somebody getting the hat trick, that’s a crazy first game.”
Twice as fun the second time!
📺: FOX | NFL+ pic.twitter.com/EDJ07dLygu
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) September 10, 2023
It was the first multiple-interception game of Bates’ career, and he had to search his memory even further to come up with a game as productive, he said.
“It almost felt like I was in high school again,” he said. “It was a great time, for sure.”
The Falcons didn’t turn the ball over Sunday, and their plus-3 turnover margin was only the sixth time in the last five years they have been plus-3 or better in a game, according to TruMedia.
Falcons’ Arthur Smith took some risk with defensive coordinator. Will it pay off?
A game like Sunday’s is “why we signed” Bates, Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. They gave Bates a four-year deal worth up to $64 million with $36 million in guaranteed money, bucking the trend in an NFL that is obsessed with positional value and doesn’t believe safeties have that much except in the most extreme cases. The deal made Bates the fourth-highest-paid safety in the league.
“Yeah, I don’t really know about the market or how much value it is, but I know what I bring to the table every day,” Bates said. “Safety is a big deal. You’re the quarterback of the defense, and if you watch that film, we were communicating at a top level, and that usually starts with the safety. I don’t really care about who values the safety and who doesn’t. I know the Falcons took a shot on me, and it’s my job to show them they are right.”
The Athletic rated Bates the offseason’s fifth-most desirable free agent in the offseason. He was coming off five years in Cincinnati in which he started all 79 of the Bengals’ games and had 14 interceptions and 43 passes defended.
“That didn’t surprise me out there,” said running back Tyler Allgeier, who led the Falcons in rushing with 15 carries for 75 yards and two touchdowns. “That’s just who he is.”
Bates was named one of the Falcons’ five captains in his first season with the team. That’s “for a reason,” defensive lineman Calais Campbell said.
“He’s been working hard, leading us,” Campbell said. “We’ve seen him do it all the time, but practice is one thing. To do it in a game is a whole other beast. Man, it was pretty. He should definitely be defensive player of the week for the NFC. He set the tone for what we’re going to be the whole season. Obviously, there is a lot of stuff to clean up, but to hold a team to 10 points in the NFL is huge.”
The Panthers (0-1) outgained the Falcons (1-0) 281 yards to 221 on Sunday, but Atlanta trailed only briefly thanks to Bates’ work against Carolina rookie quarterback Bryce Young. Both of Bates’ interceptions came against the same Panthers formation and came on throws over the middle of the field.
“He likes to throw the ball inside the hashes,” Bates said. “Both of them were two-by-two (formation), similar routes, trying to hit that dig in the middle of the field. Our coaches do a really good job of making (film) cut-ups, and we do a good job as players of taking that and watching it together and seeing the concepts they like to run. This week it was a bunch of inside breakers, so I was able to make a couple plays on those.”
Young finished his NFL debut 20-for-38 for 146 yards, one touchdown and the two interceptions.
“I felt like we had a jump on him today,” Bates said. “He’ll be a really good quarterback in this league, but today we got the best of him. I remember playing my first game. I can only imagine what it’s like for a quarterback playing his first game. That’s a lot of pressure.”
Bates’ addition was only part of the Falcons’ defensive makeover this offseason. He was one of six new defensive starters on the field Sunday, joining Campbell, defensive linemen Bud Dupree and David Onyemata and cornerback Tre Flowers, who started in place of the injured Jeff Okudah, who is also new. Carolina averaged 3.9 yards per play.
“It’s the first game, and we’re going to work out some kinks, but overall we did a hell of a job today,” Grant said.
Why Bijan Robinson is the ‘perfect’ fit in the Falcons’ wide zone run game
The victory gave the Falcons an early advantage over the Panthers in what is expected to be a wide-open NFC South. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints both won Sunday.
In Cincinnati, Bates helped the Bengals go from basement dwellers to division champions over the course of his career. The team finished 6-10 in his first season (2018) and then made the playoffs in back-to-back years, including one run to the Super Bowl, in his final two seasons.
His advice to Falcons fans? Enjoy this one. Then forget it.
“I think people should feel good. It’s hard to win in this league,” he said. “It’s a one-week season. This city deserves it, this team deserves it, but the biggest thing is we have to celebrate tonight, we can do anything we want tonight, but then when we get back in there Monday and watch the film and reset and try to go 1-0 again. That’s the way this league goes.
“The teams that are successful do that week in and week out.”
(Top photo: Brett Davis / USA Today)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Preorder it here.