The Carolina Panthers have built one of the NFL’s best defenses with a scheme predicated on getting pressure on the quarterback with the front four, and without relying on a lot of blitzes.
Now they’ll have to produce that pressure without their best pass-rusher.
When embattled defensive end Greg Hardy took an indefinite leave of absence and was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list Wednesday, the Panthers lost one of the main cogs of the league’s fifth-ranked defense.
Hardy, awaiting a Nov. 17 jury trial on charges he assaulted and threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend, is a freakish, 6-foot-4, 275-pound athlete who can drop in pass coverage, line up over a center or guard or sprint downfield as a gunner covering punts.
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Hardy’s ability to blow past or power through offensive tackles and get to the quarterback as an edge rusher is the reason the Panthers put a $13.1 million franchise tag on Hardy two months before his domestic violence arrest.
With Hardy out through at least late November and possibly for good, the Panthers will find out, beginning Sunday night against Pittsburgh, whether their scheme will continue to be effective without him.
“It’s going to have to be. We’re not going to change up what we do,” defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “We feel good about the guys we’ve got in our room. We’re going to keep rolling, next man up.”
The next-man-up approach will require three men to fill Hardy’s spot. The Panthers will use a platoon consisting of Wes Horton, a run-stopper from Southern Cal, speed-rusher Mario Addison and rookie Kony Ealy, whom the Panthers drafted in the second round this year with an eye on replacing Hardy next season.
All three have potential, but none has shown he can match Hardy’s production. Hardy had 26 sacks the past two seasons, including a club record-tying 15 in 2013, when he earned his first Pro Bowl berth.
“It’s tough to replace a guy of his caliber, no question it is. However, we’ve been playing well and no doubt the guys that are here can step up and play well,” cornerback Antoine Cason said. “We saw Mario do exactly that. Everybody is playing well.”
Addison came up with 2 1/2 sacks last week when Hardy was deactivated for the Panthers’ 24-7 win against Detroit. Through three quarters, the Panthers hadn’t sacked Matthew Stafford once.
But they collected four sacks in the fourth quarter when all of the Lions’ 19 offensive snaps were pass plays. With Detroit down by three scores, Stafford said the Panthers’ defensive linemen were “pinning their ears back” because they knew what was coming.
Facing the Steelers’ young but talented offensive line, the Panthers will try to prove they can get heat on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out of their base defense.
“It’s tough to gauge from that first game. We’ve just got to get guys going on the defensive line,” said middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. “I think Wes played well at times last year and he’s got another year under his belt. Kony’s still fresh and Mario’s Mario.
“Greg’s obviously a great player, but I think we’ve got guys who will be able to step up and make plays.”
Paging Lotulelei, Johnson
Panthers coach Ron Rivera pointed to two players who will be counted on to make more plays in Hardy’s absence – second-year defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and defensive end Charles Johnson, who has averaged nearly 11 sacks per season since signing a six-year, $72 million contract in 2011.
Johnson doesn’t have a sack yet, but his six quarterback pressures are the most on the team. Rivera is mindful of Johnson’s workload after he played 62 of 72 defensive snaps against the Lions.
Of more concern are the double-team blocks Johnson can expect to see without Hardy in the lineup.
“Now that it’s just Charles, will he continue to get doubles like he did last week?” Rivera said. “If he’s getting doubles, then the other guys have to step up, a la what happened with Mario (against the Lions), a la what’s happened with Dwan with the inside push.”
Edwards contributed the Panthers’ other 1 1/2 sacks against Detroit as he collapsed the pocket into Stafford.
While the Panthers have invested heavily in Hardy and Johnson, Rivera said the additions at defensive tackle since he arrived four years ago have been just as important. Carolina signed Edwards and Colin Cole, and drafted Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two draft picks in 2013.
The starters at defensive tackles during Rivera’s first season were Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, a pair of third-round picks who never panned out.
“When we first got here that was one of the things that was missing was that inside presence. We didn’t have that inside push,” Rivera said. “So you’d see our guys win on the outside, but the quarterback would step up, hitch and throw the ball. Now with the guys getting the push inside, it doesn’t allow for that.”
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman’s philosophy of loading up the front seven mirrors what the New York Giants did for years when Gettleman was in their front office.
The approach doesn’t always leave a lot of cap room to address the secondary. The Panthers’ lost two starting defensive backs – corner Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell, now with the Steelers – in free agency following last season’s NFC South title.
Some have labeled the secondary as patchwork, including Rivera, if only to stoke the group’s competitive fire.
“We’ve had a much maligned secondary since I’ve been here. It’s always been ‘patchwork, patchwork,’ ” Rivera said. “They like it. It’s a chip on their shoulder.”
While the Panthers’ secondary clearly has benefited from the strong pass rush, Rivera says the two position groups work hand in hand. Although the corners often set up several yards off the line in soft coverage, they’re also asked to press and jam receivers on occasion, which Rivera says helps the pass rush.
“If you’re disruptive and you throw the timing off, the quarterback has to hold the ball maybe a little bit longer,” Rivera said.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was on Philadelphia’s staff when the Eagles were a blitz-heavy team under coordinator Jim Johnson. But McDermott picks his spots to bring extra rushers, although he called up a few blitzes early in the second half last week when the line was having trouble getting to Stafford.
McDermott was noncommittal when asked whether he envisioned having to use more blitzes with Hardy gone.
“We’ll see. I think we blitzed a handful of times” against the Lions, McDermott said. “Whatever the game calls for is what we’ll do, (depending on) situation, game plan. We have a big test this week with a really good offense and a really good quarterback coming in here.”
Strong safety Roman Harper and linebackers Thomas Davis and Kuechly are among the players McDermott can call on if he wants to dial up the pressure. Harper has 17 sacks since entering the league in 2006, the most among defensive backs over that span.
Harper, formerly of the Saints, believes the Panthers will maintain a strong rush.
“Everybody can get to the passer at any position at any time,” Harper said. “They put a heavy emphasis on getting off the ball and playing fast and furious up front, and they do a great job of it. When it becomes a part of your culture ... everything comes naturally.”
As big a loss as Hardy is, Kuechly, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, said the Panthers aren’t going to scrap what McDermott has spent four years building.
“I don’t think we can change anything very drastically at this point in the year. It’s not like we can really switch defenses or do anything like that,” Kuechly said. “I think it’s going to be the three guys that step up to fill Greg’s spot, and Charles can do Charles’ job.”
Many of the Panthers’ players didn’t know they were going to be without Hardy last week until just before kickoff. This week they’ve had several days to prepare for life without the player known as the Kraken.
Edwards said there’s no sense looking back.
“We can’t replace (Hardy). But like you saw last week, guys step up and take advantage of those opportunities,” he said. “Next man up, it’s got to be like that. We can’t take any steps backward.”