The Carolina Panthers have lost Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy for the foreseeable future, and it will take a platoon of defensive ends to replace him.
For a second consecutive week, Mario Addison, Kony Ealy and Wes Horton will have to fill the vacancy left by Hardy along Carolina’s vaunted defensive line.
“It’s going to come down to more snaps for all three of us and we’re going to have to be consistent with those snaps,” Horton said Wednesday. “It’s not enough to show flashes or have a big play here and move on to the next game. We have to be impact players backing up Greg.”
Horton got the start against the Detroit Lions last weekend, and he played 34 of the 72 defensive snaps. Ealy, a rookie playing in his first regular-season game, had 30 snaps and Addison 28 as they also spelled veteran defensive end Charles Johnson.
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Of the three ends, Horton might be the most well-rounded, and that helped him earn the start Sunday when the Panthers deactivated Hardy 90 minutes before kickoff. At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, he has the build of a defensive end while also having the ability to stop the run and pressure the quarterback.
A second-year player out of Southern California, Horton signed with the Panthers as an undrafted free agent last year and was active for 10 games last season.
“Being a free agent, I started from the bottom and worked my way up,” Horton said. “I was very proud of myself for that moment. But I felt like I personally could have played a better game.”
The pass rush wasn’t effective early against the Lions and quarterback Matt Stafford. Carolina didn’t sack Stafford until Detroit was in must-pass situations during the fourth quarter, and the defensive line was able to pin its ears back for four sacks in the final quarter.
Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who might be an emergency defensive end this weekend, had 1 1/2 sacks and Addison led the team with 2 1/2 sacks. But coach Ron Rivera reiterated Wednesday that Addison can’t serve as any every-down end.
At 6-3 and 260, Addison is undersized as an NFL defensive end. He specializes in rushing the passer – mainly on third downs – and special teams.
Still, he averaged a sack per 11.2 snaps against the Lions.
“Whenever I get any opportunity I’m going to make the best of it,” Addison said. “Every play you do, it’s not going to be perfect. But also you can learn from your mistakes.
“I can stop the run. I’m a defensive end, so I can stop the run as well. People may say I’m undersized and all, but I can stop the run. … It’s good to be able to go out there on third down and put a little more pressure on the quarterback.”
The Panthers remain without third-year end Frank Alexander, who is serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Despite the new rules for substance-abuse violations, he was not eligible for reinstatement.
Carolina’s defensive ends will face a tough test Sunday night against Pittsburgh, which has allowed just five sacks through two games.
Rivera is concerned about putting too much on the shoulders of Johnson, who battled a hamstring injury for most of training camp and the preseason. Johnson has just two tackles and zero sacks.
He didn’t make any excuses Wednesday, but he knows he has help with the depth on the team.
“I haven’t been executing. I’m going to keep working to try to help the team out the best way possible,” Johnson said.
“We’ve always had a good rotation. It’s always next man up.”