One is a free spirit who paints his face on game days, pops in a pair of colored contacts and steps into an alter-ego called the Kraken.
The other is a reluctant leader who, despite being Carolina’s highest-paid player, would rather sit quietly before a game than paint his face or do anything else that might draw attention to himself.
Panthers defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson could not be more different personality-wise.
But together they have developed into one of the top pass-rushing tandems in the league. Entering today’s game against the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos, Hardy and Johnson have combined for 14 sacks, the best total by a tandem in the NFC.
Only Houston’s J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith (15) and Denver’s Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil (14.5) have combined for more sacks.
Meet the Panthers’ version of the odd couple.
“Charles is a pretty normal guy, for the most part. Greg Hardy’s a little off,” Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “But we like him that way. He’s producing for us. And when a guy’s in a zone, you kind of just let him be. Let him do his thing.”
Hardy and Johnson will try to do their thing Sunday against a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback who hasn’t been sacked in three games. With Manning’s quick release and the stout blocking by the Broncos’ offensive line, Denver has allowed just two sacks over the past five games and 10 on the season, tied for the second-fewest in the league.
Johnson said Manning is like having an offensive coordinator behind center.
“You’ve got to really be on top of your game. You’ve got to watch tons of extra film,” Johnson said. “The only way (a rush) is going to affect him is push up the middle and getting to him and hitting him.”
‘Big Money,’ or Chuck?
After Johnson signed a six-year, $76 million contract extension in 2011, the Observer and other media outlets began referring to him as “Big Money.”
But his teammates call him Chuck. It fits a player who grew up in rural Georgia and would rather be seen than heard.
As recently as three weeks ago, Johnson said he didn’t consider himself a leader, at least not the rah-rah type. It was around the time Panthers coach Ron Rivera picked Johnson to replace the injured Jon Beason as one of the defensive captains, a move that forced Johnson out of his shell.
“I felt like I always was a leader on the field. But that ‘C’ made it official,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to be a more vocal leader. That takes time. But we’re growing as a defense, and we have to keep growing.”
Rivera has seen personal growth from Johnson, 26, who has a 14-month-old son.
“You see him trying to be more responsible,” Rivera said. “He’s a young man and he’ll make young man mistakes. But just watching who he is, he’s a young father, he’s relished those roles. It’s been neat to watch him.”
Edwards, who joined the Panthers in Week 1 after Buffalo released him, said Johnson made him feel welcome and answered all of Edwards’ questions.
Johnson’s play through the first half of the season has answered critics’ questions about whether he was deserving of the big contract. Johnson’s production slipped last season, when he battled a lower back injury the last three games.
Plus, Johnson wasn’t getting much help.
But the arrival of Edwards and more inspired play from Hardy have made it harder for offenses to put an extra blocker on Johnson. With more favorable matchups, the Panthers have been able to generate pressure without relying on blitzes (see accompanying analysis).
Johnson (7.5 sacks), Hardy (6.5) and Edwards (5) are on pace to be the first trio in franchise history to record 10 sacks each in a season, and Johnson can join Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker as the only Panthers players to record at least nine sacks three seasons in a row.
Johnson, who has never been to the Pro Bowl, said he’s not worried about the accolades – at least not now.
“All that is for the end of the year,” he said. “Every game I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to prove myself every game. I’m hungry every game. You can count up all the stats at the end of the season.”
With rookie defensive end Frank Alexander chipping in with 2.5 sacks, the Panthers have accumulated 24 sacks, tied with Denver and Minnesota for seventh and not far off their 2011 total of 31.
The interior push provided by Dwan Edwards, Ron Edwards and Sione Fua has made quarterbacks step out of the pocket, into the path of Hardy and Johnson.
“I feel like there’s no stars on our D-line. I feel like Chuck feels the same way,” Hardy said. “They’re coming from everywhere. Dwan’s coming. Frank’s coming. Our assistant coach is coming. We’re not going to stop. You can punch us in the face, throw us down. Throw the flag, don’t throw the flag. We’re just going to keep coming.
“I think that’s what’s got us to this point – the can-do attitude and the dog mentality.”
Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, a former Panthers’ assistant, has noticed.
“They hit the quarterback a lot. They’ve had a number of sacks,” McCoy told Denver reporters. “They’ve done a nice job. They play with a lot of energy and they play snap to whistle every down. You have to make sure you do your job up front.”
‘A little off’
Fua, the second-year defensive tackle, said Hardy and Johnson could not be more dissimilar.
“I’d say they’re very different,” Fua said. “Chuck kind of keeps to himself. I’d say he’s very professional. Greg likes to have a little fun. He’s always singing over here, rapping, singing his songs, listening to his music.”
With his locker next to Hardy’s, Fua has a front-row seat every Sunday when Hardy becomes the Kraken, a mythological sea monster of giant proportions. Besides painting his face and putting in black- or white-colored contacts, Hardy also covers his name on the back of his jersey with a strip of tape reading, “Kraken.”
He peels it off during pre-game warmups – when he remembers. Last season he left it on too long for the team’s liking and was fined an undisclosed amount.
Dwan Edwards recalled his reaction the first time he saw Hardy become the Kraken.
“You think the guy’s a little off. Then you have a chance to talk to him and you realize, ‘Oh yeah, this guy’s a little off,’ ” Edwards said. “It all kind of matches up between his personality and the stuff that he does.”
Some of the stuff Hardy does tries the patience of Rivera and his staff.
He was involved in a motorcycle wreck in 2011 that left him with severe abrasions and a foot injury that sidelined him through most of the preseason. This past summer he posted a picture to his Twitter feed that appeared to show him driving in excess of 100 miles an hour.
Rivera had a sit-down with Hardy during the offseason in which he explained Hardy was part of the team’s plans, but he had to hold up his end of things. The two seem to have reached an understanding.
The emotional hump
Hardy apologized to Rivera in the locker room last week after yelling at his offensive teammates near the end of the Panthers’ 21-13 win at Washington. Rivera told him no apology was necessary, and later said Hardy’s outburst might have been what the Panthers needed to get over “that emotional hump.”
Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010 whose stock slipped because of injury and attitude concerns, looks to have cleared a hurdle in his development. After making just one sack over the final 11 games last season, the 6-foot-4 Hardy hit the weight room during the offseason and gained 20 pounds, to 290.
With his blend of size and speed, Hardy moves inside to tackle in one of the Panthers’ sub-packages and creates a matchup problem for guards and centers. His 6.5 sacks nearly match his total of 7 from his first two seasons combined.
Besides their personality differences, Hardy and Johnson are on opposite ends of the salary scale. Hardy is making $540,000 in the next-to-last year of his rookie deal.
“Call me ‘Small Money,’” Hardy joked.
No matter the disparity, Johnson said Hardy is coming into his own.
“Everybody’s got their own thing they do. Everybody’s got their own type of swagger, I guess you could say. Whatever fits him, he’s coming along and you’re seeing how (good) he can be,” Johnson said. “He has all the talent in the world. He can be the best D-end that he wants to be.”
Make that two of them.