From the second he began scouting second-year cornerback James Bradberry, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has never seen him get rattled.
“I mean, he really is a very calm guy,” Rivera said, laughing. “I think he’s just one of those guys who keeps his wits about him.”
Safety Kurt Coleman thinks that gets in receivers’ heads in an unusual way – a way much unlike the chatty player who came before Bradberry.
“I respect James for being James,” said Coleman. “You love (Josh Norman) because he would turn into Batman and go save Gotham City.
“And James can almost get into a player’s head because he won’t get rattled. It’s almost the opposite effect. If you beat him on a play, he’s lining right back up and coming right back at you. It’s not going to faze him.”
Bradberry gets another chance to prove just how unflappable he can be against top receiver Julio Jones this week as the Panthers take on the Falcons.
“It’s just kind of my demeanor,” he said. “I try not to get too high, try not to get too low. That helps me out a lot when I’m facing the big-time receivers.”
Carolina’s secondary has had a game against Atlanta as padding to dull the memories of “that game,” but the Panthers might be pardoned for still carrying a bit of a chip on their shoulders about it.
“That game” is the loss early in 2016, in which Bradberry, was tested early by three consecutive passes from quarterback Matt Ryan to Julio Jones, then got hurt. Rivera and his defensive coordinator had drawn up a package specifically for Bradberry, but when he hurt his toe (he later was sidelined for a few weeks with turf toe), they had to put in a corner who had gotten very few snaps in that plan all week at practice.
Jones put up 300 yards on 12 catches and scored a touchdown as the Panthers were walloped.
“He crushed us,” Rivera said.
It seemed to be rock-bottom for Carolina’s secondary, pieced together with three rookie draft picks (two of whom had to start) after the infamous rescinding of Norman’s franchise tag by then-general manager Dave Gettleman.
Many in the secondary call the season that followed a “baptism by fire” for the rookies.
But a healthy Bradberry didn’t let the lows keep him low. He was back for more on Christmas Eve against Atlanta, and played well despite Carolina’s loss, holding Jones to 60 yards on four catches with seven targets.
Both games were big moments of growth not just for the Panthers secondary, but for Bradberry’s skills – it takes a lot more than a great demeanor to try to make a player like Jones a non-factor on Sunday.
What Falcons head coach Dan Quinn sees on tape from Bradberry (and his counterpart on the outside, Daryl Worley) this year is length and strength, and an increase in confidence.
“They like to play close to those guys and make it hard to release,” said Quinn. “So I've got respect for what they do. And you can see their size, wanting to go in and tackle as well. ...
“I think when you play outside, the confidence is what comes through. And you can see they've played a lot of football and now really stay confident knowing that they can run with anybody, play at the line of scrimmage.”
The Falcons have other playmakers for Carolina’s defense to focus on – and defensive backs coach Curtis Fuller told the team website he thinks Atlanta will try to motion Jones away from Bradberry, too, which means the two won’t always be going head-to-head. But when Bradberry is able to cover Jones, the idea is to free up other defenders to focus on those playmakers.
“You identify the guy who is going to go work against (Jones), and then the other guys can focus on what they do,” said Rivera. “We can focus on (a larger part) of the field as opposed to where just one guy is, specifically.”
Bradberry knows Quinn will test him early against Jones, though. He said he’s expecting it, after it has happened almost identically in the teams’ last two matchups.
“Tested me out on the first play. So I’m ready for it,” he said.
Rivera appreciates that.
“Somebody said something to him about the way he prepares and works really hard,” said Rivera. “He goes, ‘I’m not coming out here to get embarrassed!’”