Panthers struggling on defense without Greg Hardy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Panthers continue to struggle without Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy.

Carolina has given up 37 or more points in three of its last four games and fallen from second in the NFL defense last year to 26th this season. The team which led the league in sacks in 2013 with 60 is on pace for just 39 this season with its top pass rusher out indefinitely awaiting his appeal on a domestic violence conviction.

Coach Ron Rivera isn’t using Hardy’s absence as an excuse, but said ”it’d be asinine for me to say that his loss has no impact on us.”

Rivera was quick to add that’s not the only reason why the defense has struggled.

”It’d be easy to sit here and say it, but I’m not gonna ,” Rivera said. ”Then you start letting a lot of people off the hook, me included. The truth of the matter is these guys are professionals and they need to play, and they need to play better.”

The Panthers came into the season talking about unseating the Seattle Seahawks as the league’s top-ranked defense.

Instead, they’ve headed in the other direction.

The Panthers are allowing 26.1 points per game, ninth-most in the league. They’ve particularly struggled to get off the field on third downs, where they are 31st in the league.

Applying pressure to the quarterback has been an issue without Hardy, who tied a franchise record with 15 sacks last season. His loss has had a trickle-down effect with defensive backs and linebackers forced to cover receivers longer.

Hardy was found guilty in July of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill her. He has filed an appeal is awaiting a jury trial Nov. 17.

Hardy hasn’t played since the season opener and has been placed on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list. He has been removed from the team’s active roster but is still receiving his weekly salary of $770,588.23 .

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called Hardy a ”phenomenal player,” but said the team has had to take a next-man-up approach to deal with his loss.

”We all know what Greg brings to the table,” said McDermott, now in his fourth season with Carolina. ”The thing I need to focus on is Greg’s not here. Greg’s on my mind because I hope he’s doing well. My primary concern is the guys in that room and getting this defense to improve – no matter if we were the No. 1 ranked defense and we were undefeated.”

Hardy’s agent Drew Rosenhaus did not reply Wednesday to an interview request from The Associated Press.

Along with Hardy’s absence, the Panthers are also trying to find answers in the secondary where they have four new starters.

”We’re a new defense overall from last year to this year,” cornerback Josh Norman said.

Despite the issues on defense, the Panthers (3-2-1) remain alone atop the NFC South entering Sunday’s game at Green Bay.

But they’ll be tested by one of the NFL’s hottest quarterbacks.

Aaron Rodgers has the NFC’s highest-rated quarterback through six games with 15 touchdown passes and just one interception.

”He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the game right now, if not the best,” Panthers safety Roman Harper. ”He can make all of the throws.”

Carolina’s problems haven’t been isolated to stopping the pass.

The Panthers are giving up a league-worst 5.5 yards per carry. They’ve surrendered four runs of 50 yards or more this season, including the two longest jaunts in the NFL – an 81-yarder to Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell in Week 4 and an 89-yarder to Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard last Sunday.

Harper said it’s matter of guys needing to take better angles and tackling.

”We have to get guys down,” Harper said. ”We have the speed and the ability to do that.”

Norman believes the Panthers will get things turned around sooner or later.

”It’s the same scheme so everything will run its course,” Norman said. ”We’re starting off a little slow this year but we’ll get things picked up, get healthy and play defense the way we need know how to play.”

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