Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry played admirably on Sunday against one of the best wide receivers in the league, Atlanta’sJulio Jones.
Jones had five catches on nine targets for 64 yards and no touchdowns. One of those catches, a 9-yard snag out of the slot, was not Bradberry’s responsibility. So technically, Bradberry held Jones to four catches for 55 yards, which is a career low in his five games against him.
This week, Bradberry wants a piece of A.J. Green, the Bengals’ longtime premier receiver.
“I’ll tell you right now, (Bradberry) has done a tremendous job. Since his rookie year, we’ve put him in tough positions and he doesn’t back down one iota,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday. “He didn’t back down last week against probably one of the premier receivers in the league, and he’s got another one this week that he’ll get opportunities to line up against.”
Except...Bradberry might have to share.
Green scored three touchdowns against Baltimore last Thursday, and all of them were from out of the slot. Bradberry is an outside cornerback who is able to defend a team’s No. 1 receiver all over the field.
Because Carolina’s base defense actually features the nickel quite often as well as the “big nickel,” which uses a speedy safety or hybrid linebacker to cover the slot, it’s more likely Green will get moved around on Sunday to test the Panthers’ defensive versatility.
So Bradberry will square off against Green on the outside, but so will nickel back Captain Munnerlyn at times from the slot, and inside-outside corner Corn Elder. If speedy outside corner Donte Jackson, who is recovering from a slight hamstring/groin strain, is able to play Sunday, he might get a shot, too.
Munnerlyn, who would likely be the matchup on Green if he were to play most of his snaps in the slot, knows the receiver well. While at South Carolina, Munnerlyn met Green while the latter was on a recruiting visit to the school. Green ultimately went to Georgia, so the two played against each other before going to the NFL.
A former Vikings player, Munnerlyn also went against Green when Minnesota and Cincinnati had joint training camp practices.
“I’m ready for the challenge,” Munnerlyn said of Green, who is 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. “I know he’s got the height advantage, but at the same time, I know how to put myself in position to make plays. ...I think (what makes him so special as a receiver) is him going up and getting the ball. How he can high-point the ball. He runs great routes, he’s very long. He’s a very long receiver. He’s got body control, and he’s got great hands.”
To counter those gifts, Munnerlyn said, the Panthers’ cornerbacks must make sure to be between the quarterback and the ball, and Green.
“You can’t be on his back side,” he said. “His back side, that’s when he makes you look bad. It’s like going up to get a rebound. You’ve got to try to box him out and try to separate him from the ball.”
Munnerlyn wasn’t surprised to see Green operate so effectively in the slot against Baltimore, especially when matched against 5-foot-9, 185-pound nickel cornerback Tavon Young. But he also knows the Bengals and new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor won’t hesitate to move Green elsewhere if they don’t like a defensive look.
“That’s what they’re doing. They’re starting to move star receivers around, that’s been in the NFL for awhile,” he said. “Trying to give them different matchups, looks, and try to get them the ball.”
That can present extra challenges to defenses, who must shift to counter the obvious mismatch while keeping track of other playmakers.
Rivera said a team manages this by being especially aware of where the coverage help is. But sometimes, that doesn’t go as planned.
With Bradberry largely responsible for Jones last week, Atlanta’s other pass-catchers had 208 yards and two touchdowns.
Against Baltimore, Green’s move into the slot gave young wideout Tyler Boyd a shot outside, and he made the most of it with six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown.
“(What) you have to be careful about too is you can’t get stuck on one guy,” said Rivera. “We had a little bit of that on Sunday against Atlanta. But you really try to get a feel for where he is, what they like to do with him from certain areas and then try to create the best possible matchup you can have. That’s how you try to counter it.”
So it sounds like the Panthers might cover Green by committee.
That method isn’t just smart, it also might have the popular vote from the players. In the locker room on Wednesday, a few Panthers cornerbacks made it clear that they wanted a shot at defending Green.
That confidence made Rivera chuckle at the podium later that afternoon.
“The nice thing is that we’ve got a bunch of young guys who don’t know any better. That’s the first part. And they’re all competitive as heck,” he said.
“If (Donte Jackson) is back there tomorrow, hopefully, he’ll get an opportunity. Corn will get an opportunity and Captain will get an opportunity. We’re looking at what we want to do, and how we want to do it. A lot of it will be reacting to where they line him up, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue