SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera spent a good portion of practice on Tuesday morning standing alongside general manager Marty Hurney, watching intently as players went through pass rush drills.
Rip technique. Swim move. Egg beaters and bull rushes.
Rivera wants to see them all.
Applying pressure to the quarterback is an area Rivera has a keen interest in heading into his second season with Carolina.
The Panthers (No. 20 in AP Pro 32) managed just 31 sacks last season, and Rivera said getting pressure on the quarterback is “something we have to get better at,” especially playing in a highly competitive division that includes quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman.
Rivera is counting on increased production from, among others, starting defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. That duo combined for just 13 sacks last year, although Johnson said they are developing good chemistry working together this summer, and the future is bright.
“Hopefully we’ll see some double digit sacks out of both of us this year,” Johnson said.
Johnson parlayed an 11.5-sack season in 2010 into a whopping six-year, $76 million contract last year, making him the team’s highest-paid player and a cornerstone of the franchise. His ability to stop the run certainly played a huge role in him getting that big contract, but Rivera hinted at Johnson being capable of more after being held to nine sacks last year.
Rivera said the team needs him.
“Charles is very consistent right now, but we need him to take it to another level,” Rivera said. “He’s doing the things we want him to do, but we want him to do more. That’s why we have him here.”
But Johnson could use some help.
No other Carolina player had more than four sacks last season, including Hardy.
If Hardy is able to step up his play at right end, it should take some of the double teams away from Johnson on the left side and give him more one-on-one pass rush opportunities.
Linebacker Jon Beason called Hardy “a wild card.”
“He’s so special in terms of talent and potential that you never know what you’re going to get,” Beason said.
Beason believes if Hardy puts his mind to it he can be great.
“He can make the wild play whenever he chooses to,” Beason said of Hardy, a sixth-round draft pick in 2010 out of Ole Miss. “But you look for him to mature now going into his third year and take ownership of that position, to say ‘I’m the starter’ and ‘Hey, what happens is predicated on what I do.’ So, go ahead and be a dominant force.”
Hardy seems focused on reaching that untapped potential.
He said he shaved his dreadlocks to prove he is “ready for business” and bulked up to about 295 pounds, adding about 20 pound to his frame this offseason. Despite the weight gain, Rivera said Hardy still has only 13 percent body fat and is in outstanding shape.
“He’s looking good,” Rivera said. “We’re pretty excited about what he’s done. I like his maturity and it’s one of those things where he’s been developing, and developing, and now it’s time for him to take the next step.”
Hardy also sold his motorcycle, which Rivera said “was huge for us.”
Injuries from a motorcycle crash limited Hardy’s ability to practice last summer and put him a little behind in terms of learning the defense.
The Panthers aren’t particularly deep behind Johnson and Hardy.
Thomas Keiser played well in a reserve role after being activated from the practice squad last year and finished with four sacks and an interception. The Panthers really like rookie Frank Alexander, their fourth-round draft pick from Oklahoma as well as versatile veteran Antwan Applewhite.
Rivera is the first to point out that the defensive ends can’t do it alone.
“If you have a good pass rush it helps your secondary, and if your secondary is playing well it helps your pass rush,” Rivera said.
The Panthers have Chris Gamble, but there are a host of other inexperienced players still competing for playing time at cornerback.
Still, Beason believes the Panthers have the talent to get a good push up front. The rest of is up to the players.
“The skill set is there. The scheme is there. We just have to fine tune things and be consistent,” Beason said. “They work hand-in-hand. If you have good coverage on the back end, and the quarterback inadvertently holds the ball longer it gives them longer to get there.
“I think the guys we have up front can get pressure. The rotation is good. It’s a deep group.”
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