The Falcons won their season opener for the first time since 2017 and they owe much of it to their new safety.
“It almost felt like I was in high school again,” Bates said. “It was a great time, for sure.”
Panthers quarterback Bryce Young had a bad time as Bates helped him realize he’s not in college anymore.
The Panthers selected Young with the No. 1 overall draft pick out of Alabama. Young won his last game here, beating Georgia in the SEC championship game. The rookie quarterback had some good moments in his NFL debut, but Bates erased them with the interceptions.
On both plays, Bates baited Young into passing late to receivers breaking to the middle of the field.
“I remember playing my first game,” Bates said. “I can only imagine what it’s like for a quarterback playing his first game. That’s a lot of pressure. You want to get in a rhythm and get that feel and, honestly, I feel like we had a good jump on him today.
“I’m sure he’ll be a really good quarterback in this league, but today we got the best of him.”
Bates’ takeaways helped the Falcons win even though they couldn’t muster much of a passing game. Desmond Ridder passed for just 115 yards on 18 attempts. Ridder’s first pass attempt of the 2023 season was complete … to himself. He should have knocked down the deflected pass, but instinctively caught it for a six-yard loss.
On third down Carolina’s Brian Burns beat Falcons tackle Kaleb McGary and stripped the ball from Ridder, who recovered it. Bradley Pinion shanked a punt, and Carolina’s offense easily marched to a first down at Atlanta’s 20-yard line. The Falcons were on their heels.
I thought it was a questionable choice for the Falcons to give fans white flags to wave on critical downs. But the defense stiffened instead of surrendering. The Falcons stopped Carolina on a third-and-short run and again on fourth down.
Atlanta’s next drive fizzled when Burns bull rushed Jake Matthews to drop Ridder and right tackle Kaleb McGary didn’t slow Burns down enough on an inside pass to Bijan Robinson that lost six yards. That’s when Bates went to work.
Young threw late across the middle of the field from Carolina’s end zone. Bates jumped the pass for an interception. The Falcons had the ball at Carolina’s 17-yard line. Bijan Robinson scored when he caught Ridder’s short pass, juked Frankie Luvu and crashed through Vonn Bell and Shaq Thompson to reach the end zone.
After the teams traded three-and-out possessions, Young led the Panthers on a 12-play touchdown drive that tied the score. He converted two third downs with crisp, accurate passes along the way. The Panthers got the ball first after halftime. Young’s 16-yard scramble and eight-yard pass got them into field-goal range, and Eddy Pineiro made it from 43 yards for a 10-7 lead.
The white towels weren’t working anymore for the Falcons. The Panthers confused them with misdirection plays. They reeled off long runs on cutbacks. The Falcons couldn’t generate much pass rush pressure against Young. When they did, he slipped away.
After the Falcons were three-and-out for the third time in seven possessions, Bates came to the rescue again. Young tried another pass to the middle of the field. Bates read his eyes and got the same result.
“I feel like I had a good feel for what they wanted to do today, (knowing) that they had to get him comfortable,” Bates said. “They wanted to get the ball out quick. Keep the ball inside the hashes. So, I kind of took advantage of that today.”
Bates’s second pick put the Falcons at Carolina’s 36-yard line. This was a prime chance to regain the lead. Instead, the Falcons couldn’t gain a first down for the fourth time in eight drives. Younghoe Koo’s 49-yard field goal forged a tie.
The Panthers had something going on their next drive when Bates made yet another play on the ball. Carolina gained two first downs, the second on a questionable pass interference call. Miles Sanders was on his way to another big gain when Bates punched the ball out and teammate Lorenzo Carter recovered it.
Game officials ruled Sanders was down, but Falcons coach Arthur Smith won his replay challenge. Bates had done it again. The Falcons finally turned one of his takeaways into a touchdown. They went 61 yards on seven plays. Tyler Allgeir ended the possession with the first of his two touchdown runs.
The Falcons led 17-10 but there was almost a full quarter left to play. They needed the defense to hold up. Carolina’s next drive stalled after crowd noise forced a false start, turning a third-and-five into third-and-long. Young held the ball because no targets were open. Troy Anderson sacked him when he tried running outside.
The Benz Dome was alive. The white flags were working again. Bates boosted the Falcons
“I wasn’t doing anything super out of my job, being superman,” Bates said. “I was just doing my job, playing the middle of the field. Good things happened for me.”
That’s part of the formula for the Falcons finally fielding a good defense in 2023 after years of bad groups. They needed a playmaker on the back line. They are paying Bates a lot of money to be a premier defender. He had 14 interceptions and three forced fumbled over 79 starts for the Bengals from 2018-2022.
Bates punched in for his first official game for the Falcons on Sunday and immediately became their most valuable employee.