CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers' pass rush has proven to a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season.
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have combined for 15 sacks in the past six games making them the NFL's second-most productive sack tandem in the league behind only Denver's Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.
Not bad for a pair that coach Ron Rivera describes as having "completely different personalities."
Rivera said he wouldn't trade the tandem for any in the NFL, adding "as our defensive line has grown, our defense has gotten better."
Carolina's 16th-ranked defense has held opposing offenses to 20 points or less in each of their last five games. Unfortunately for the Panthers, four of those games have resulted in defeats as Cam Newton and the offense continues to struggle.
Johnson and Hardy have formed a formidable duo, even if they both admit they're nothing alike.
Johnson is more of the calm veteran who rarely loses his cool.
Hardy is the emotional one, the guy who paints his entire face on game day and transforms himself into an alter-ego he calls "Kraken."
"Greg is more excitable, loud and, well, I guess you'd say kind of a wild boy," Johnson said. "I'm just cool and calm and I like to work. I like to earn everything I get."
Hardy has always been a bit of a wild card.
He came to training camp in 2011 with his body beat up after a motorcycle accident in Tennessee left him with severe skin abrasions. Hardy traded that motorcycle in for a Bentley, but drew the ire of coaches this past offseason when he Tweeted a picture of his speedometer reading 100 miles per hour.
Even Rivera admits Hardy is "a little off the wall" but that "he's all business when it comes to the game. He's fiery and emotional."
Hardy laughs when he hears others' perception of him.
"What people don't understand is it's a persona, an attitude," Hardy said. "I have to get hyped for a game. If you're not ready for the game, it will hit you in the face and you'll wind up on IR (injured reserve)."
Johnson, now in his sixth NFL season, has developed into a true pro, Rivera said.
When linebacker Jon Beason went down with an injury Rivera asked Johnson to step out of character a bit and put the "C'' on his jersey for team captain. That's a role even Johnson wasn't quite comfortable with at first, admitting that he doesn't view himself as a vocal leader.
But Rivera said leading by example is just fine, too.
"I think he has matured into the type of player we envisioned he could be," Rivera said of Johnson, the highest-paid player in team history after inking a six-year, $76 million contract in 2011.
Johnson has 8.5 sacks this season and is on pace to shatter his career-high of 11.5. Hardy already has established a new career-best (6.5 sacks) with seven games remaining.
Together they've combined to force six fumbles and recovered two.
They'll be tested on Sunday when the Panthers host red hot Tampa Bay, which has won four of its last five games.
Quarterback Josh Freeman has been on fire during that span with 13 touchdown passes and one interception.
Bucs coach Greg Schiano said his team will have its hands full.
"The thing I love is the way they play, some of them are really finesse moves and stuff, you sit there and go 'Wow,'" Schiano said. "A lot of those sacks are just hard effort and playing sacks that they just outwork the guy that's blocking them and get to the quarterback. We know we're really, really going to have to strain our guts out to protect Josh and it's a huge challenge for us."
Carolina's pass rushing duo started the season off slow, failing to register a sack in the first three games of the season.
Rivera believes the turnaround is due in part to veteran defensive tackles Ron Edwards and Dwan Edwards getting settled in on defense. Ron Edwards, the big body gap-filler up front, missed all of first season in Carolina with a torn triceps, while Dwan Edwards has been a huge free agent acquisition this year contributing five sacks.
"It helps when you can get a push from inside at the three-technique spot," Rivera said.
The Panthers lost 36-14 to the Broncos this past Sunday, but only 20 came at the hands of Peyton Manning and Denver's offense.
The other 16 came from Denver's defense and special teams.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott believes holding the last five offenses to 20 points or less is major progress from 2011.
"I'm not taking anything away from the wins and losses (because) that's the most important thing of our business," McDermott said. "But I've got a goal as a defensive coordinator and a vision, and we're moving forward toward that vision. Anybody who was at the field saw that those guys played tough, aggressive football through and through until the end of the game."
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