Panthers’ defense led by young front seven

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Quick, name the starting defensive ends for the Carolina Panthers.

Hey, hey, no cheating.

Most NFL fans outside of the greater Charlotte area likely wouldn’t be able to name Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy as the bookends along a young defensive line for Carolina, which comes to Minnesota this week to face the Vikings in a matchup of 1-3 teams looking to get some semblance of momentum this season.

Johnson and Hardy might fly under the radar, but NFL offensive coordinators have surely taken notice. Only four teams in the NFL last season had two edge rushers with double-digit sacks. Only one of those teams — the Denver Broncos with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil — had two double-digit pass rushers combine for as many as Johnson and Hardy’s 23.5 sacks.

The Panthers then selected two defensive tackles in the first two rounds of April’s draft in Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short and now have the league’s third-ranked defense in terms of fewest yards allowed and are seventh in the league against the run.

“I think what they’ve done is they’ve given us a consistent inside push,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of Lotulelei and Short. “It’s really helped our two defensive ends. Last year we had two double-digit sack defensive ends and I think it’s really helped with this interior push that we’ve gotten this year. We’ve taken away the opportunity for quarterbacks to step up consistently in the pocket. And what’s happened to is, as quick our two young tackles are, they’ve also forced some double-teams. So, again, unless you max pro, you’re not going to be able to double both our defensive ends.”

The four pass-rushing duos with double-digit sacks last year include big names like Miller, Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware and St. Louis’ Chris Long. Johnson and Hardy have quietly matched that production.

Johnson is in his fourth year as a starter after being a third-round pick in 2007 and has turned into one of the league’s most consistent pass rushers. He had 33 sacks the past three seasons as a starter and has notched three sacks in four games this season.

Hardy is a former 2010 sixth-round pick in his third year as a starter. He had 11 sacks last season and has three so far this year.

The two also stand up well against the run, along with Lotulelei and Short.

“They’re doing a good job,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of the defensive line. “They’re doing a good job against the run. They’re rushing the quarterback well. So they’re a formidable foe in a lot of ways. We’ll have our work cut out for us with their defensive line.”

With middle linebacker Luke Kuechly a rising star at his position after being named the defensive rookie of the year last season and outside linebacker Thomas Davis finally healthy and having one of his best season, Carolina has allowed 92.3 rushing yards per game and a 3.6-yard average.

“I think the play of the rookie tackles has been outstanding, but I also think though that Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are playing as well as anybody,” Rivera said. “I really like our linebackers. I think that Luke Kuechly again is having a solid year just like he did last year where he was defensive rookie of the year. I think Thomas Davis is an explosive guy for us who makes plays. Adding (linebacker) Chase Blackburn to the mix gives us a very solid, stout, physical player and again, I think the emergence of our safeties has been good for us.

Of course, Rivera knows his defense hasn’t faced anyone like Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson. The Panthers faced Seattle and Marshawn Lynch in the season’s first game and held the Seahawks to 70 yards rushing. The Buffalo Bills and their two-headed attack of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson ran for 149 yards. But the past two games, the New York Giants (60 rushing yards in Carolina’s lone win) and the Arizona Cardinals (90 yards rushing) haven’t been able to establish the run.

“This is going to be a heck of a challenge,” Rivera said. “Trying to stop Adrian Peterson and trying to stop the play-action passing of Minnesota is going to be a tough task, but we’ve got to gear up and get ready for it.”

And they’ll probably continue to fly under the radar while they do it.

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