Carolina Panthers

A year later, are Panthers’ maturing DBs better prepared to face Saints Drew Brees?

Panthers DB James Bradberry's take on the Saints: Every divisional game is tough

Carolina Panthers' James Bradberry looks ahead to the team's upcoming divisional game against the New Orleans Saints
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Carolina Panthers' James Bradberry looks ahead to the team's upcoming divisional game against the New Orleans Saints

When he talks about the teammates who sit just a few feet away from him in the Carolina Panthers locker room, veteran safety Kurt Coleman’s easy smile becomes almost ... fatherly.

James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are growing up as NFL players right in front of him.

“I think it’s just the maturation process that you hope every guy goes through,” Coleman said. “With how they handled last season, and really, the large criticism that we all faced as a defensive backfield, they handled it well. And especially how they worked this offseason.

“I’m not surprised with how well they’ve started out the season. I’m really not.”

Last season, the Panthers secondary featured two rookies, Bradberry and Worley. In Week 6, the Panthers faced New Orleans – this weekend’s opponent, with Bradberry hurt. And Saints quarterback Drew Brees proceeded to torch the Panthers for 465 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-38 victory for New Orleans.

After that game, the secondary had given up 1,692 passing yards – 282 per game – including two 400-plus-yards passing games.

Drew Brees
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) torched the Panthers’ defensive backs for 265 yards in Week 6 of 2016. Is Carolina’s maturing, reconfigured secondary better suited to slow him in 2017? Jeff Haynes AP

But this season, Carolina’s secondary, featuring Coleman and the two now-second-year cornerbacks alongside veteran safety Mike Adams and veteran nickel Captain Munnerlyn, has so far allowed a modest 136.5 passing yards per game.

And they say they are more ready to face Brees this time. The consistent play of Bradberry and Worley, Coleman says, has helped with that.

“I would say their approach has changed, just the way they approach each and every day,” Coleman said. “Last year I had to kind of force them to come in early or stay later, you know, just to do those little things. Now they just do it on their own.

“That’s what has really impressed me. When they’re making those plays on Sunday, I’m not surprised by it because, one, they’ve put in the work but also, they put themselves in a position to do that all week long.”

Nobody commands the secondary as Coleman does. The safety notices every detail, every tiny mistake. And those are getting fewer and fewer.

Teammates joke that if either corner makes a mistake in a game now, they’ll never see that same mistake again. The proof doesn’t necessarily exist on the stat sheet – it exists in the play of Coleman.

Last year, Coleman found himself babysitting in coverage to clean up potential miscues by the rookies. This season, his hard-hitting, fly-to-the-ball style is back.

“I think what we’re experiencing (now), is that we’re very comfortable with each other,” Coleman said. “We understand where we need to be and what we need to do, and we’re not looking to point fingers. There’s accountability.

“Before, if you haven’t experienced it and you just don’t know it, and you make a mistake, well that’s on us. But now, we know everything. And they’re playing fast. It frees me up. I’m not worried about those guys at all. I can do my job, and just play football.”

Yin and Yang

The two corners, drafted together in 2016 to fill a position of desperate need, had to develope quickly to keep the secondary cohesive – and they did.

Now, they can’t get away from each other – to the point where both even had to sit in the locker room with an intravenous treatment mid-game in Week 1, after cramping up on the exact same play.

“Somehow, we always end up in the same room,”Bradberry laughed. “We came into together and that’s my guy. That relationship goes beyond football.

“It just makes you more comfortable playing out there, knowing that someone else has gone through the same struggle as you and also who is learning with you. So you can sit down and watch film and try to see what they’re struggling with at the time, compare notes and things like that.

Coleman calls the two “twins,” not just because of their bond and the way they tease each other like brothers, but because they are such different people despite their parallel situation.

“(That) is nice because they feed off each other,” he said. “They’ll make fun of each other a lot, but they’ll push each other a lot.”

Worley is chatty and cocksure, a compact ball of energy who is quick with his smile and quicker with his mouth.

Bradberry’s build fits the traditional cornerback mold, but his personality does not. It’s easy to underestimate the stunning ability of the quiet small-school product until he’s out on the field.

“Those guys, they understand each other. ... Major James is ... very quiet, he speaks with his production on the field,” said quarterback Cam Newton, throwing out his nickname for Bradberry and Worley in turn. “And then you have Batman on the other side where he’s got a little kick to him. And we need that from him.”

Coleman said those differing personalities create a great balance in the secondary in general.

“It’s such a give and take feel that we have. I think it’s a really good combination, it balances each other out,” he said. “I’m excited about those two guys and what they’re going to be able to do in the coming years for us. Because they have what it takes.”

In Week 3, Bradberry and Worley will really have to prove that.

Taking on Drew Brees

Carolina veteran defensive end Julius Peppers commented boldly last week that this Panthers defense is the best he’s ever played on.

And the first two defensive outings have been nothing short of phenomenal. The Panthers have only allowed six points, stopped opponents on fourth down five times out of six attempts, allowed only six conversions on third down in 24 attempts and have seven sacks. Carolina didn’t even allow Buffalo to make it past midfield until the third quarter last week.

But the Panthers haven’t been tested by a pocket passer of Brees’ caliber – and they will be. The Saints may be 0-2, but Brees has thrown 82 passes in his first two games, completing 54 for 647 yards and three touchdowns, without an interception.

While some see that as a challenge, Bradberry is more inclined to facing Brees as an opportunity.

“I know it’s going to give me the opportunity to get more interceptions, to get more plays on the football,” Bradberry said matter-of-factly. “So I’m looking forward to it.”

And what does Worley see on film from his rookie year that he would do differently against quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints this year?

“Basically everything I did in that (2016) game,” he joked this week. “If I really was to break it down. I mean, it looks like two different people if you ask me.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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