The Carolina Panthers may have lost on Sunday, but the defense came to play against one of the most prolific offenses in today’s NFL. Shaq Thompson, Brian Burns, Kawann Short, Donte Jackson, Eric Reid, and more came to play, and they delivered a solid defensive performance that unfortunately couldn’t get the job done when paired with miscues and mishaps on offense.
One player really raised my eyebrows though, and that was former second round pick James Bradberry, who is currently listed as Pro Football Focus’s number one corner with a solid one reception allowed on four passes for 11 yards by their metrics, along with a sack, pass deflection, and interception. Bradberry came to play against a loaded group of receivers, and instead of playing solid he played GREAT.
Bradberry was thrown into the fire day one of his career, defending against number one receivers since his very first snap. We always saw flashes of what he could be, breaking on passes and holding tight coverage, but in years passed he wasn’t as much an impact player as much a model of consistency. He was the kind of corner you want in a “bend but don’t break” defense, but he didn’t consistently push the envelope and create as many negative plays as you want from a top tier corner. Well, on Sunday I saw a different player.
James Bradberry has always (fairly or unfairly) drawn comparisons to Josh Norman, a similar player with a similar build and similar story. Josh Norman had a ton of potential, but he never put it all together and was often a liability for Ron Rivera’s defenses. That changed in 2015, his contract year, and it kicked off with a lightning rod of a performance in week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He built on that with a consistently dominant 2015 season that raised him from talented up and comer to a true star in the NFL’s defensive back group. What I saw from Bradberry reminded me of THAT version of Norman.
GREAT heads up play by James Bradberry to go get the sack. Looked a lot like 2015 Josh Norman against the Seahawks in the playoffs— Cat Scratch Reader (@CatScratchReadr) September 8, 2019
On third down, Jared Goff rolled out to try and make a play with his legs, either by throwing the ball down the field or scrambling to get the first down. It forced the defense into a bad position, but that’s when I saw the light bulb go off in Bradberry’s head. He made a decision, burst out of his zone, and sacked Goff in a play reminiscent of Josh Norman’s sack against Russell Wilson in the NFC Divisional round of the 2015 season.
The reason this play stuck out to me more than that interception (which was a thing of beauty), was that Bradberry made a decision, rolled the dice, and reacted. Ron Rivera’s defense has been chastized over the last few seasons due to the insistence on giving the wide receivers a cushion as defensive backs line up 5-7 yards off the line of scrimmage, sometimes more. However, when this defense is executed by players who can read and react quickly, it gives them an opportunity to come up and make an impact play. The issue here is that the Panthers have fielded younger players at cornerback, where reading and reacting doesn’t always come as second nature at first. On Sunday, Bradberry executed press and off coverage to near perfection, and he managed to undercut a receiver for a beautiful interception late in the game.
I believe that sack signaled Bradberry’s arrival as a true number one corner, one who reads, reacts, and rolls the dice like the best of modern NFL cornerbacks. And funny how it comes in his fourth season, on a contract year, on a defense that has desperately needed consistent playmakers who can make impact plays. Just like Josh Norman did in 2015.