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Carolina again counting on James Bradberry vs. Julio Jones


CHARLOTTE – In the first game between the Panthers and Falcons last season, wide receiver Julio Jones was historically dominant, finishing with 300 receiving yards on 12 receptions in Atlanta's big win.

"He crushed us," head coach Ron Rivera recalled Thursday.

In the second game between the two NFC South rivals, Jones recorded four catches for 60 yards.

The difference? Cornerback James Bradberry.

Now it's not quite that simple. The Panthers preach team defense, and Bradberry isn't always on an island against someone like Jones. But the point is, Bradberry is Carolina's key to keeping arguably the best receiver in the league from taking over the game. Last season's results reveal that pretty clearly.

Bradberry didn't even make it through the first series in the first matchup, and the rookie's absence left the Panthers severely shorthanded.

"We had a plan, and then he suffers the turf toe and barely played," Rivera said. "Sean (McDermott) and Steve (Wilks) put together, I thought, a really good package, but we had to put a guy in there that didn't really have the reps to do it."

Bradberry matched up against Jones in the second meeting, all the while developing into a corner the Panthers count on to shadow the best receivers on the schedule.

Last week at Tampa Bay was another example, as Bradberry traveled with Mike Evans. He was physical with him throughout and limited Evans to five catches for 60 yards on 10 targets.

"James can physically and mentally match the other team's best receiver. He has the ability to control one side of the field," said defensive backs coach Curtis Fuller, who also pointed out that teams will motion their top wide receiver to get them away from Bradberry on occasion.

"I don't want to say take it away, because in this league you really can't. But you can control it, and that allows (defensive coordinator Steve) Wilks to do certain things and build pressures."

When defending Jones, a lot of teams deploy coverages designed to take him away and force others to beat them. Fuller said he's seen a lot of that through Atlanta's seven games – a big reason why Jones hasn't lit up the stat sheet (540 yards and one touchdown).

But the Panthers will rely heavily on Bradberry to keep Jones under control.

"He's an elite receiver, if not the best in the league," Bradberry said. "It's a challenge, and I'll see where I'm at.

"I try not to get too high or too low. I feel like that helps me out a lot when I'm facing big-time receivers."

Bradberry is unique in that way. A lot of No. 1 corners get extra yappy when they've got a big individual matchup. But Bradberry never strays from his composed, even-keeled demeanor – no matter the circumstances.

"He's a very calm guy. He just keeps his wits about him," Rivera said. "I don't think I've ever seen him rattled."

When asked about the Bradberry-Jones duel, safety Kurt Coleman harkened back to the 2015 season, when former Panthers cornerback Josh Norman had a very different approach.

"It reminds me of 2015 with J-No and (Julio) going back and forth. It's going to be a battle," Coleman said. "I respect James for being James. You love J-No 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 is lining right back up and coming right back at you. It's not going to faze him."

Rivera characterized Bradberry as fearless when he's on the field – an important attribute for a cornerback given the nature of the position.

But fear of failure is no doubt a motivating force for the second-year cornerback.

"Somebody said something to him about the way he prepares and works really hard," Rivera said. "He goes, 'I'm not coming out here to get embarrassed.'"

Jones has been known to embarrass those lined up across him. The Panthers know it all too well.

Bradberry is intent on making sure it doesn't happen Sunday.

"We always talk about prepare, practice and execute – and with James, he has really embraced the whole process," Fuller said. "He's going into the game with more confidence, more understanding of what we're asking him to do.

"It's definitely an important game for James as he continues his maturation."

View photos from the week of practice leading up to the Panthers' game against the Falcons.

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