Charles Johnson injury: Time for Greg Hardy to step up

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina will be without its top pass rusher and the time has arrived for Greg Hardy to prove he can be the guy.

Charles Johnson is the oft-forgotten workhorse of the Carolina defense. He doesn't participate in the level of fan interaction Greg Hardy does, or get the national acclaim of Luke Kuechly -- but Johnson means everything to the team's defense. An argument can be made that he's the most underrated Panther this season, and a stronger one that he's the most underrated defensive player in the NFL. Today we look at what his absence means to the game on Sunday and whether Greg Hardy is ready to assume the mantle.

Johnson's statistics this year are eye-popping. 8.5 sacks, a total of 51 quarterback pressures and 15 stops. According to Pro Football Focus only two 4-3 defensive ends have more total pressures, Robert Quinn of the St. Louis Rams and Brian Robison of the Minnesota Vikings.

The Panthers defensive end is an anomaly in the modern NFL where teams have moved more towards speed ends and lithe offensive tackles with quick feet. Johnson is built like a defensive tackle, and his overwhelming bull rush has left many tackles in his wake.

Then the leg whip happened.

Carolina's Week 12 game should have been a showcase for Johnson up against a weak offensive line, but he'll almost certainly be out with the injury. Thankfully it wasn't more serious, but it does open up the Panthers defense to a potential vulnerability if they can't generate enough pass rush pressure.

Greg Hardy has been fantastic this season, a shade behind Johnson in passing rushing statistics while being a more-reliable run stopper from the edge. However, his ability without Johnson has never really been tested. Since both players started together there's only one game Johnson has missed that Hardy played, against the New Orleans Saints in 2011. In that contest Hardy was unable to generate a single pressure.

That's not even enough to be called a small sample size, so it's best to regard his potential against the Dolphins as an unknown. Pass rush tandems are funny things, and often both players don't operate equally successfully away from each other. Hardy will be forced to be the team's pass rush without a truly capable end across from him, and it will be the definitive performance that will dictate how highly he's regarded in free agency this year.

Miami has made a commitment that the team plans to throw deep more, and the offense has the weapons to do it. It's remarkable it took offensive coordinator Mike Sherman 10 weeks to work out this was the Dolphins' best move, but c'est la vie. Herein lies the importance in rushing the passer. If Carolina can't get regular pressure the secondary isn't outfitted to stop Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline deep. It's not a dissimilar problem to that the team had with Buffalo when Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods had success.

This is a game the Carolina Panthers should win without too much trouble, but if Hardy can't generate regular pressure off the edge they'll struggle. It's the biggest thing to watch on Sunday.

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