From Florida State to Orchard Park: The career of LB Nigel Bradham in photos
When LB Kiko Alonso was reported out for the year with an ACL tear earlier this year, people wondered who in the linebacker corps could step up and salvage the lost productivity.
But to the players who made it up, it was never a wonder that they could do it.
"Yeah, for sure. As an athlete, you always know what you can do," LB Nigel Bradham said when asked if he knew he could be this productive in 2014.
"We're all NFL players so we're all pretty good players," added LB Preston Brown. "We knew that was a Pro-Bowl [caliber] player that we were losing so we knew we're going to have to step up our game."
Even head coach Doug Marrone didn't know where the linebacker unit would be without Alonso.
"I thought it would be a challenge," he said. "When you lose somebody like Kiko and the year he had you wonder where do we go and who do we have to replace him. And then all of a sudden Preston Brown really pops. Two years in a row we've popped the draft with two linebackers that are three down linebackers that are two outstanding football players. Along with Nigel Bradham really doing a 180 and turning around and playing lights out in comparison to what he did in the past."
To the last comment, numbers prove just how lights out Bradham has been this year. So far in 2014, he has 100 tackles; in 2012-'13, he had 100 tackles combined. Part of this is owed to a significant increase in defensive snaps (73.5 percent in 2014 vs. 24.8 in 2013) but as he said, he always knew what he was capable of.
With Brown, who is the only other player on the roster with triple digit tackles, it was never a matter if he could do it, but whether he would have the opportunity. Needless to say he has certainly had his opportunity, playing in 93.4 percent of the snaps.
He said when he was drafted in May he didn't expect to have such an impactful role this early in his career but given the opportunity, he would grab the bull by the horns. He's just happy to be playing and making his mark on the game.
It is a team game however, and both players say the defense wouldn't be where it is today without defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
"When he was coming in, we already knew what type of defense we wanted to be, as far as players wise," said Bradham. "And then we were fortunate enough to get a coach that was happy enough to come here and decided to come here because of our talent we have on defense. He saw what we can do and we pretty much just jelled together from day one and built the plan of what we wanted to do this season. That's what we did."
A theme all year with Schwartz has been his intensity. Time and again the defense reiterates how his intensity has propelled the defense. Brown said it could be six in the morning or 12 o'clock at night, you're going to get that intensity from Schwartz no matter what. Bradham added that this helped the defense play harder than in past years.
"You could tell we were a lot more intense defense. Played with a lot more passion," he said. "His intensity definitely stayed the same every game, every week. There wasn't ever a drop off. We just always matched it."
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, whom Buffalo faces in Week 17, has even taken notice of the season this duo is having.
"They've been very good at the linebacker position. Bradham and Brown have been really productive for them," said Belichick. "I've been really impressed with Bradham. Good blitzer, strong tackler, good coverage player. He and Brown have both given them good speed behind the line knowing they're in nickel defense a lot. They don't blitz a lot, but when they do those guys do a good job. Bradham has been disruptive."
As for Alonso, the year hasn't been a total loss for him. He has been around in the locker room, practice, and on the sideline taking mental reps. Brown said it's been good to have Alonso around because he sees the game differently so his pointers are always helpful.
The prospect of getting Alonso back next year too has this pair excited.
"I think we'd definitely be one of the best in the NFL," Brown said. "With him coming back, we'll hopefully be the four, five, six best linebackers in the NFL so that's what we're trying to do."
"It can get like ten times stronger," Bradham said of where the linebacker unit could be next year. "It's a great thing to have this much talent on a team and in one corps because we know we can be the best corps in the league."