If James Bradberry’s Monday afternoon in the film room was anything like defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ press conference, Bradberry better buckle himself in tight and hold on to the armrests.
Wilks was blunt and straightforward about the last play of Carolina’s 9-3 victory against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, during which Bradberry got caught behind rookie receiver Zay Jones on a long fourth down play with 14 seconds left. Jones just barely missed the catch, which would have, at the very least, put Buffalo on the 1-yard line with about nine seconds left.
“The third element of our game is playing smart. Last play of the game, fourth down, understanding the time on the clock and most importantly the formation, all that stuff. ... We’ve got to do a much better job with our left corner, Bradberry, staying vertical and really getting a double on that seven route with the safety playing inside out,” said Wilks, as a part of his opening statement.
He then was able to expand on what went wrong during the play (which, to his credit, Bradberry took ownership of after the game Sunday night).
“It was an empty formation and we play in quarters. And James, in my opinion, got a little nosy,” said Wilks, sternly. “He allowed that No. 1 receiver to occupy. He drove on the comeback, which we don’t do in that situation. Thomas (Davis) should have pushed through, which he was, and James should have stayed deep with (safety) Kurt Coleman (playing the seven route) inside out, James should have been outside-in and it really should have been an interception.”
Bradberry will have to learn from that play quickly.
It might have been something both would have already put behind them, if it weren’t for the quarterback Carolina’s secondary will face this week: Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, and the New Orleans Saints. Wilks expects this matchup to be a tough test for his corners, who haven’t faced a passer of Brees’ caliber yet this year.
Stuffing the run
On the surface, Carolina’s run defense looked excellent against Buffalo. The Panthers were able to hold the Bills to 69 yards rushing a week after the team ran roughshod all over the New York Jets. They also held top back LeSean McCoy to just 9 rushing yards.
On a deeper level, it looks even better: McCoy’s 9 yards are a career low for games in which he’s had 10 or more carries.
The Panthers’ defensive line and linebackers were able to be so effective against the run because of their strict gap accountability and run fits.
“A point of emphasis each and every day in practice, and our walk-through, in teaching everything we do is about run fits,” said Wilks.
Carolina also found so much success against McCoy specifically because they eliminated the cutback lanes that are so important for a shifty back like McCoy to find.
“(The Bills) do a great job really of those backside cuts, you know, first and second-level,” said Wilks. “They try to cut you and roll. A point of emphasis all week with (defensive line coach Eric) Washington and (assistant defensive line coach Sam) Mills, we worked on that.
“If you go back and watch the tape, our tackles did a great job staying alive and not being on the ground. That’s what (McCoy) is looking for: They’re going to set the edge on the front side and he’s looking for that cutback, but we stayed alive on the back side. Our tackles did a great job staying alive and getting into that crease.”
He runs, they run, everybody runs
Panthers veteran defensive end Charles Johnson wasn’t speaking figuratively when he told reporters after Sunday’s game that this defense is all about “11 guys running to the rock.”
Wilks said Monday that the way his defense does this is unique in the league, and a huge factor in Carolina’s success: The Panthers rank first in the league in total defense, and have allowed only one fourth down conversion on six attempts as well as only six third-down conversions on 24 attempts. The defense also has not allowed a touchdown in the first two games of the year for the first time in franchise history.
“When you watch teams play, they don’t run to the ball as we do,” said Wilks. “And yes, it’s very impressive. It’s exciting. But it’s something that we demand.”