As he pulled off his shoulder pads after Thursday’s practice, Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson spied a reporter waiting to interview him at his locker.
Johnson turned around and politely said he wasn’t much interested in talking. In the way of explanation, Johnson said: “I haven’t done anything.”
That depends on who you talk to.
Stats-loving media members and fantasy football owners look at Johnson’s zero sacks and four tackles through three games and question the productivity level of the player who in 2011 was given the most lucrative contract in the Panthers’ history and the nickname “Big Money.”
Johnson’s coaches and teammates – as well as Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, whose Ravens team faces the Panthers on Sunday – see a pass rusher who’s drawn extra attention and blockers following the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy, but one who is still finding ways to make his presence felt.
But it’s clear Johnson expects more from himself.
Late Monday morning, 12 hours after he was held to one tackle in a 37-19 loss to Pittsburgh, Johnson sent the following tweet to his 31,000 followers:
“I will train harder, I will work harder, and I will focus harder. I will pick my game up! I will earn everything that given to me #Panthers”
Steve Smith won’t be the only player at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium with a chip on his shoulder Sunday.
During the summer of 2011, then-general manager Marty Hurney was part of a Panthers contingent that flew to Miami to make sure Johnson didn’t hit the open market.
Johnson was coming off a breakout season in which he finished with 11 1/2 sacks, and the Atlanta Falcons were among the teams interested in talking to him. And after a year in which they’d pared their payroll in advance of the lockout, the Panthers had money to spend.
After losing Julius Peppers in free agency a year earlier despite offering to make him the highest-paid defensive player in the league, the Panthers couldn’t afford to let Peppers’ replacement walk, too.
Johnson signed a six-year, $72 million contract, with $32 million guaranteed, to stay with Carolina, prompting reaction around the league the Panthers had overpaid to keep him.
Johnson, 28, has continued to be a productive pass rusher since signing the deal, which has been restructured each of the past two years for salary cap purposes.
Although he’s never finished in the top five in the league in sacks or made the Pro Bowl – Peppers went to Hawaii five times as a Panther – Johnson last season became the team’s first player to finish with at least nine sacks four consecutive years.
His 54 sacks rank 23rd among active NFL players and third on the Panthers’ career list.
With two more sacks, Johnson will pass Mike Rucker for second place and will trail only Peppers, who collected 81 sacks with the Panthers from 2002-2009.
Whether because of his quiet personality or his ambivalence toward the spotlight, Johnson has never received many postseason accolades or endorsement opportunities. He’s viewed as more of a grinder than a superstar.
But Harbaugh knows who he is.
“Charles Johnson is just a premier player in football,” Harbaugh said this week. “He pushes the pocket, he’s got about every pass rush move, he’s good against the run and he’s just a premiere player.”
A premiere player looking to get untracked following the loss of the Panthers’ franchise-tagged payer.
Missing a bookend
Johnson and Greg Hardy formed one of the league’s best pass-rushing duos the past two seasons, when their 49 1/2 sacks matched St. Louis’ Chris Long and Robert Quinn for the most by a tandem.
With Johnson and Hardy lined up as bookend pass rushers, offensive coordinators had to pick their poison in deciding where to commit an extra blocker. But now that Hardy’s gone, suspended until his domestic assault case is resolved, Johnson is finding the sledding a lot tougher.
Hardy is out until at least late November after being placed on the commissioner’s exempt list Sept. 17.
A District Court judge found Hardy guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend during an early-morning incident at Hardy’s condo May 13. He appealed the judge’s decision, and has a jury trial scheduled for Nov. 17 during the Panthers’ bye week.
Johnson and Hardy played together once this season – in the opener at Tampa Bay. Hardy had a sack, and Johnson was credited with two quarterback pressures in the press-box stats and given four pressures by the Panthers’ coaches after their film review.
Hardy was deactivated for the Panthers’ Week 2 game against Detroit before going on the exempt list before last week’s game against Pittsburgh. The Panthers have filled Hardy’s spot with a platoon consisting mostly of Wes Horton, who plays mainly on running downs, and speed-rusher Mario Addison.
Addison has bunched 3 1/2 sacks over the past two games, but Johnson hasn’t had so much as a hit on the quarterback.
“The hard part for Charles is he’s now the bell cow. He’s the guy they’re looking to,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “So Mario’s got to continue to step up, and who knows? Now all of a sudden Mario may become the focal point and get Charles a few more opportunities.”
Still seeking a sack
A film review of the Panthers’ games against Detroit and Pittsburgh showed the Panthers trying several ways to help Johnson’s rush, from lining him up in a “wide-nine” technique, to standing him up opposite the offensive tackle, to looping him inside on various stunts.
None of the tactics resulted in a sack for Johnson, who was most often at left end matched against the right tackle.
In the Panthers’ 24-7 win against the Lions, Johnson faced an extra blocker – usually a running back who chipped Johnson on his way out on a pattern – on nine of the 44 pass plays when Johnson was in the game.
Johnson dropped in coverage on one play, but otherwise worked against Lions tackles Garrett Reynolds and Riley Reiff.
The Panthers failed to generate much pressure on quarterback Matthew Stafford, recording all four of their sacks as the Lions passed on every down trying to cut into the lead.
On three of the four sacks, Johnson drove one of the tackles into Stafford, helping to collapse the pocket on plays when Addison and/or defensive tackle Dwan Edwards ended up with the sack.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have made the plays that I have,” Addison said. “That’s one thing about us – we work together as one. The ends come off the edge. We contain the quarterback and the two inside guys get push. If the quarterback gets out, then not one of us can get a sack. So we all play off each other.”
After watching film of the Panthers, Harbaugh said Johnson’s value extended beyond statistics.
“I’m seeing him push the pocket, I’m seeing him push tackles back into quarterbacks’ laps. Sometimes that is what causes sacks and he’s done a great job with that,” Harbaugh said.
“I wish we could just look at the stat sheet and say, ‘We can’t worry about this guy.’ The media tends to do that. But we can’t afford to do that as an opponent because I can see on tape the impact he has on the game.”
Johnson wasn’t as effective rushing against the Steelers, who ran a lot of quick-hitting tunnel screens to wide receivers and used a ground-and-pound running attack to stay out of many third-and-longs.
The Steelers employed an extra blocker only three times among the 24 pass plays when Johnson was in the game.
But as was the case against the Lions, Johnson played a role in the Panthers’ lone sack of Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter. He drove right tackle Marcus Gilbert into Roethlisberger, who was taken down by Addison.
That was the extent of Johnson’s disruptiveness against the Steelers, although he posted three tackles against a Pittsburgh team that had two backs run for more than 100 yards.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott saw progress from Johnson last week.
“When you look at the total package of him defending the run last night, I thought he did a better job. I thought he rushed well, but the ball was coming out fast,” McDermott said. “Some of those things go hand in hand. On Mario’s sacks, he’s pushing the pocket from the other side and it just so happens Mario get his hands on the quarterback before Charles does. Let’s not overlook the good that he’s doing right now.”
No days off
Tuesday is the players’ off day during the regular season. Most steer clear of the team facility. Addison said he stays home and rests.
Several times over the past few years, Rivera has gone out to the practice field to run and found Johnson working on his pass-rush moves and hitting the blocking sled by himself.
“Nothing but respect for that,” McDermott said. “That’s the leadership portion of the defense, and the defensive line in particular, and what he brings to the table.”
Johnson doesn’t say much to his teammates until he gets to know them. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly says Johnson barely talked to him during Kuechly’s first couple of seasons.
Now the two are captains together, and Kuechly called Johnson one of the leaders of the defense.
“I think Charles has played exactly the same as he did before that (Hardy) situation,” Kuechly said. “Charles is going to play hard for us. He’s going to play in his gap. He’s going to play with emotion, and he’s going to lead us. I think that’s how he’s been, and that’s how he’s always going to be.”
Johnson has had lower back issues in recent seasons, and was sidelined with a hamstring injury during the exhibition season. But Rivera said Johnson is healthy, and close to breaking through.
“You do want production from him, but he’s not just the only one. It all works together,” Rivera said. “We’ve got to be able to cover. We’ve got to be able to put them in third-and-long situations, passing situations. Go back and look again at what happened in those first two games as opposed to last game.”
Addison is quick to credit Johnson for helping pad Addison’s stat total, and thinks it’s just a matter of time before Johnson is the one finishing off the quarterback.
In the meantime, Addison said he’s seen no signs of frustration from his teammate.
“He doesn’t do nothing but work harder,” he said.