CHARLOTTE — Carolina Panthers defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have been a good tandem, whether they’re rushing the passer, joking in the locker room or posing for a photograph in Santa suits.
As Hardy re-adjusted his fake beard Friday in a photo shoot at Bank of America Stadium, he asked, “Am I official?”
When Johnson assured Hardy he did not look too ridiculous in the XXL suit and accompanying beard, wig and hat, Hardy said: “OK, let’s do this, Chuck.”
As far as collecting sacks, the two have done it better than nearly every tandem in Panthers history.
Entering Sunday’s game against Oakland, Hardy (11 sacks) and Johnson (10.5) have teamed for 21.5 sacks, the third-highest combo in the franchise’s 18 seasons. The tandem record is held by Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon, who combined for 28 sacks in 1996 and posed for a Santa sack-themed photo that year that was the inspiration for Friday’s shoot.
Johnson, the more stoic of the two ends, joked with Hardy as the two pulled on the suits in the visitors locker room, saying he looked like the Santa from the 1983 Eddie Murphy comedy, “Trading Places.”
“He would go up to people and try to rob them,” Johnson said.
Hardy, who showed up for the shoot in the face paint he wears on game days, started getting a little hot underneath the suit and camera lights.
“I’m about to have a stroke,” Hardy said.
But for much of the season, Hardy and Johnson have been the ones endangering the health and well-being of opposing quarterbacks.
Johnson and Hardy have combined for more sacks than all but four other tandems, and only one other defensive end duo – Houston’s J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith, who have a total of 25.5. But unlike the Texans tandem that has featured Watt, with 19.5 sacks, doing the majority of the heavy lifting, Johnson and Hardy have spread the work evenly.
They are only the third Panthers tandem to each record double-digit sack totals, and are the first to do so since Julius Peppers (12) and Mike Rucker (10) in 2002.
“I know the names. I don’t really know the numbers,” Hardy said. “We’re about getting sacks, getting the quarterback, whoever does it. Just being a team. Right now I’m not worried about the numbers.”
Said Johnson: “It’s just something that comes along when you’re playing hard and going out there and trying to dominate.”
Johnson has been a consistent, if not a dominant, pass-rusher over the past three seasons. He parlayed a 11.5-sack season in 2010 into a six-year, $76 million contract extension, the most lucrative in Panthers history.
Johnson added nine sacks last season and has 41 for his career, trailing only Peppers (81), Rucker (55.5) and Greene (41.5) on the team’s all-time list.
But Hardy, the Panthers’ sixth-round draft pick in 2010, is ahead of Johnson’s pace through three seasons. After combining for seven sacks his first two years, the 6-foot-4, 299-pound Hardy gained 20 pounds last offseason and has been the Panthers’ most versatile defender.
Hardy lines up at defensive tackle in some pass-rushing sets, and occasionally plays gunner on the punt team – a position usually reserved for speedy wideouts and defensive backs.
Oakland running back Mike Goodson, who spent three seasons with the Panthers, raved about the athleticism of Hardy and Johnson.
“Just knowing them and playing with those guys for so long, they go hard,” Goodson said. “They’re beasts, freaks of nature. You’ve got Greg Hardy, he plays gunner, he plays D-line. It’s going to be an interesting matchup. It’s going to be fun to go against them.”
Goodson might even get a chance to block them.
Opposing teams have resorted to using tight ends and backs to double-team or chip-block Hardy and Johnson, the latter a way for a back or tight end to try to slow a pass-rusher before continuing in his pass pattern.
But if a team decides it wants to double-team both Hardy and Johnson, it’s left with only three receivers in the route.
“I’ve seen them put the tight end to one side to double, and the back chip the other side. That’s a respect factor,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It changes what (an offense) would do in certain situations. … When people start paying attention to your guys, it does disrupt what they normally do.”
The addition of defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who has five sacks after signing with the Panthers days before the start of the regular season, adds to the Panthers’ complexity.
“Teams can’t pinpoint on one defensive lineman. They can’t really pinpoint on both (ends), either,” Johnson said. “Because when they (do), the interior linemen make plays. It’s been going along pretty good. We’ve been complementing each other, off left and right (ends), and the interior guys have been getting pressure up the middle.”
Hardy’s emergence has come at an opportune time. He is eligible for free agency at the end of the 2013 season, but has yet to talk to the Panthers about an extension.
“We don’t even have a GM, so I’m just playing right now to play,” Hardy said. “Everyone wants to get paid. You can’t get paid if you’re thinking about getting paid, though.”
Hardy was a first-round prospect at Ole Miss until injuries and attitude concerns dropped him on draft boards. But the player who led the Rebels in sacks in three of his four seasons and caught three touchdown passes as a receiver bristles at the idea that he is an overnight sensation.
“I’ve got a few different coaches, a few different people around me. I learned a whole lot of different things,” he said. “But the work’s been here. The expectations have been here. I came out of college a three-time All-American so I’ve been this good. I’m just expanding right now and expanding to an NFL-caliber defensive end.”
Johnson said Hardy’s realization that he could take his game to the next level has been the difference.
“He’s starting to realize he’s a professional and is really starting to feel he can dominate a game,” Johnson said. “And once you start feeling that, the sky’s the limit.”
Hardy’s development has created a conundrum for opposing coaches trying to figure out which end deserves an extra blocker.
“Pick your poison, really,” Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. “If either one of them lined up across from me, I wouldn’t be overly excited.”
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