Former Wake Forest star Jessie Bates stings Panthers in Falcons debut

Falcons safety Jessie Bates celebrates as he leaves the field following Atlanta’s 24-10 home win over the Panthers on Sunday. (John Bazemore / AP Photo)

ATLANTA — Safety Jessie Bates led a cast of new veteran starters on the Atlanta Falcons’ defense that was dominant against Carolina rookie quarterback Bryce Young, especially in the second half.

“Honestly, it was my day. I felt good,” Bates said after the Falcons’ season-opening 24-10 win over the Panthers on Sunday.

Bates — who played at Wake Forest from 2015-17 — stood out with 10 tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and two pass deflections in his memorable first home game as a Falcons safety.

The spotlight in the matchup of NFC South rivals was on the two rookie first-round picks, Young and Atlanta running back Bijan Robinson. Robinson showed his speed, power and elusiveness on an 11-yard touchdown reception early in the second quarter.

Bates and the defense took the lead from there.

Bates signed a $64 million, four-year deal with Atlanta after starting 79 games in five seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. He had 14 interceptions, forced three fumbles and recovered two. He was a second-team All-Pro in 2020.

He demonstrated those big-play skills in his Atlanta debut. Perhaps the biggest play came with the game tied 10-10 in the third quarter. Panthers running back Miles Sanders fumbled when hit by Bates, and the ball was recovered by Atlanta’s Lorenzo Carter.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith successfully challenged the on-field ruling that Sanders was down before he fumbled. Atlanta took over at the Carolina 39 and went ahead on a touchdown drive capped by one of Tyler Allgeier’s two scoring runs.

The Falcons spent about $140 million in signing Bates, defensive tackle David Onyemata, defensive end Calais Campbell, outside linebackers Kaden Elliss and Bud Dupree and cornerback Mike Hughes. The team traded for cornerback Jeff Okudah, who missed the opener as expected with a foot injury.

The new-look defense was dominant in allowing only a field goal in the second half against a Carolina offense led by Young, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft.

“There’s a reason we wanted to get those guys in our program,” Smith said. “And you’re playing a rookie quarterback here at home. Those guys were in tune to everything.”

Bates said he had a different level of anticipation when playing against a quarterback making his first start.

“Yeah, a little bit,” Bates said. “I would say you know what to expect. … It’s his first game and it’s pretty hard to do.”

Smith described Bates as “a great player” who was signed to be a leader of the defense. Bates said he hopes to see others on the defense, including safety Richie Grant, enjoy similar games this season.

“Maybe Richie can have his two-interception game next,” Bates said, adding the strong first game by the defense was not a surprise.

“Not at all, honestly,” Bates said. “We put in a lot of work, a lot of extra work on off days. I challenged guys to come in on off days and watch film.

“You keep a team at 10 points, you’ll win a lot of games.”