NFC South: Greg Hardy

To bring heat, Panthers call 'NASCAR'

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
3:00
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On at least one play during Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit the Carolina Panthers lined defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison in the middle at tackle in order to create more quarterback pressure.

It's called, appropriately, "NASCAR."

Addison
Johnson
"We put four guys out there and say, 'Go fast,'" coach Ron Rivera said on Friday.

The formula is simple, and one that might have to be used more to apply pressure with 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy on leave of absence until his domestic violence case is resolved.

The intent is to put as much pressure as possible on the quarterback with the front four, allowing the linebackers to drop into coverage. It works hand-in-hand with the cornerbacks being physical with wide receivers in the first five yards, to throw off the play's timing.

It's a philosophy that helped Carolina lead the league in sacks last season with 60, without having to blitz a lot.

Rivera said there will be times when you will see defensive tackle Kawann Short surrounded by three ends, or four ends and no tackles. It will always be the fastest and freshest players the Panthers have in obvious passing situations.

Regarding fresh, Rivera said he has to find a way to cut down on the snap counts for Johnson. With Hardy out against Detroit, the team's third all-time leader in sacks (54) was on the field for 62 of 72 defensive snaps.

That was 18 more than the next defensive lineman and 28 more than the next end.

Johnson was double-teamed much of the time because the Lions didn't have to worry about Hardy on the other side. He had no sacks for the game and has none for the season.

"Will he continue to get doubles like he did last week?" Rivera said. "If he's getting doubled, then other guys have got to step up, a la what happened with Mario [2.5 sacks]."

Among others Rivera cited as needing to step up was second-year tackle Star Lotulelei, who also has no sacks.

"We're going to be physical," Rivera said. "We're going to buy that extra step. But we want the four fastest to go, just to get up in there and haul butt."

Rivera said he likely will stick with the rotation he used to replace Hardy at right defensive end against Detroit. Wes Horton started and played mostly on first and second down. Addison played mostly on third down and pass rush situations.

Second-round draft pick Kony Ealy began mostly on third down, but worked more into the rotation on first and second. He could be used to give Johnson a break.

"We've got to be smart," Rivera said. "One of the things we've got to be aware of is that we don't wear Charles out."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams returned to practice on Friday and is expected to play in Sunday night's prime-time game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Ponder
Williams
The team's all-time leading rusher missed last week's 24-7 victory over Detroit with what has been called a thigh injury, but he clarified on Friday that it's a hamstring injury. He also was limited in practice much of this week and continues to be listed as questionable.

But Williams took reps with the first team on Friday and appears ready to go, barring a setback.

Also back at practice were running back Mike Tolbert (chest contusion) and wide receiver Jason Avant (hamstring). Both are expected to play.

Coach Ron Rivera said he's most concerned about starting wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (hamstring), who did not practice Friday and is listed as questionable. He said Cotchery ran on the treadmill in the pool and will be re-evaluated on Saturday.

Cotchery said he likely will be a game-time decision, adding he's not so much worried about playing against his former team as he is being ready for the long haul.

Rivera said no decision has been made on whether to bring a player up from the practice squad to take defensive end Greg Hardy's spot on the 53-man roster. Hardy on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

The decision to use the spot will be determined by the injury situation. Rivera said running back Darrin Reaves or one of two wide receivers -- Stephen Hill or Marcus Lucas -- could be brought up.

Rivera also said there's a chance that spot is left open for defensive end Frank Alexander, who's set to return on Sept. 29 from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wes Horton doesn't have a catchy nickname like Greg Hardy's, aka the Kraken, the player he and a platoon of others are replacing at right defensive end for the Carolina Panthers.

So let's give him one.

How about Gemini Jr.?

Before he began chasing quarterbacks, Horton chased his father around the original set of "American Gladiators," a television phenomenon that ran between 1989 and 1996 featuring amateur athletes against the show's gladiators in tests of agility and strength.

[+] EnlargeMichael Horton
Courtesy Wes HortonMichael Horton was Gemini, one of the six original "American Gladiators." Here, he holds his son Wes, left, a Panthers defensive end, and his son Shane, right, a linebacker with the Toronto Argonauts.
Michael Horton was one of the six original gladiators. He was known as Gemini, apparently fitting because of his split personality: calm one second, aggressive the next.

"It was a hot show," said Wes, who was born a year into the show. "[My dad] was kind of the man around town for a while. It was cool to play on the sets and travel around the country and do all kinds of crazy contests, throwing people around and being a big, strong guy."

Wes still throws people around, only now it's offensive tackles and running backs -- and an occasional quarterback. He got his first start in Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit after Hardy was placed on the inactive list.

With Hardy out indefinitely after going on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved, Horton will get more opportunities.

Next up is Pittsburgh for a Sunday night game at Bank of America Stadium.

"It's just going to come down to more snaps from all of us and being consistent with those snaps," said Wes, who will share the position with Mario Addison and Kony Ealy. "It's not enough to show flashes and have a big play here and move on to the next game.

"We've got to be impact players."

Wes' father was all about flash. From a tight red, white and blue spandex costume to swinging on ropes and tackling contestants, he was a muscle man's superhero.

"I can still get in the spandex very easily," said Michael, now a consultant on physical fitness in the Los Angeles area. "I'm in as good a shape now as I was then."

Wes isn't so sure about his father wearing spandex, but the being-in-shape part he won't deny.

"He trains me in the offseason," Wes said. "Pretty much every aspect of football, he shoots me advice. He's my No. 1 critic after games. I always call him and say, 'Pop, how'd I do?'"

Michael knows football. He spent nine years between the NFL, Canadian Football League and USFL before turning to television. While he never made it past what was then the taxi squad in the NFL, he always knew Wes would.

"He probably should have gotten drafted, but that's another deal in itself," Michael said of his 6-foot-5, 270-pound son, who was signed by Carolina as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Cal in May 2013. "He's on course to be a very good football player, and his work ethic will get him there."

Wes played mostly on first and second down against Detroit. He was the run-stopper, the player who did all the dirty work. Addison got the headlines with 2.5 sacks even though he played six fewer snaps (28).

Wes is OK with that, too, although he'd one day like to be an every-down player.

"Wherever they want to put me on the field, I'm more than willing to step in there and give it everything I have," said Wes, whose brother Shane is a linebacker for Toronto in the CFL.

In some respects, Wes is like his father. He's a gentle giant off the field. Then, when the whistle blows, he turns on the aggression.

But he wants to make one thing clear: He never dreamed of wearing spandex and being an America Gladiator. As much fun as he had playing on the Powerball, Swingshot and Eliminator on the show co-hosted by former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann, his goal was to be in the NFL.

Wes still could use a nickname, though.

Let's let his father pick one.

"Oh, gosh," Michael said. "He would probably say something easy like 'Terminator.'"

Steelers vs. Panthers preview

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
8:00
AM ET
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The Carolina Panthers are 2-0 despite playing their opener without starting quarterback Cam Newton and their second game without Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-1 after losing 26-6 to the Baltimore Ravens in prime time.

Carolina defeated the Steelers 10-0 in Pittsburgh in the preseason finale for both teams, when few starters were on the field. Now these teams will see how they match up for real. ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown are here to break this one down:

Newton: Scott, the Panthers have forced a league-best six turnovers in the first two games, and the Steelers haven't forced one. Pittsburgh also committed three against Baltimore. Do you see that being a big factor Sunday night?

Brown: Absolutely. The Steelers have to take care of the football against an opportunistic Panthers defense, and they have to start taking the ball away. It has been an issue the past three-plus seasons; the Steelers haven't won a playoff game since 2010 in large part because they have consistently lost the turnover battle.

The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell to give them a speedy playmaker on the back end of their defense, but he has not flashed in the first two games. I'm sure Mitchell would love nothing more than to make a couple of what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls splash plays Sunday night against his former team.

How is former Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery fitting in for the Panthers and how much of a positive influence has the 11th-year veteran been for promising rookie Kelvin Benjamin?

Newton: From a leadership standpoint, I'd have to give Cotchery an A. It's a much different climate on the field and in the locker room with Cotchery instead of Steve Smith, as you probably can imagine. Benjamin has all the physical tools at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds -- not to mention hands the size of a catcher's mitt. Having Cotchery and Jason Avant there to mentor him on how to block and handle not being a part of the play has been important. The improvement Benjamin made on the little things from Week 1 to 2 was noticeable.

There is not much Cotchery or anybody can teach Benjamin about catching, though. In each of the first two games, he has made the type of phenomenal catch Cotchery and Avant probably only dream about. I have to admit I was starting to get skeptical of what Cotchery would offer on the field after the preseason. But in the first two games he has eight receptions for 78 yards. He is a nice complement to Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, who has been outstanding.

The Steelers have struggled to stop the run so far. The Panthers have struggled to run, and that is a big part of their game. What has been the problem on Pittsburgh's side?

Brown: Wait a second, here. Are you trying to tell me that Jonathan Stewart and De'Angelo Williams aren't Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier? Tomlin sure made them sound like a fabled running back tandem this week. And since no coach has ever employed hyperbole in talking up an upcoming opponent, I'm going to assume Carolina's problems running the ball are an aberration.

Seriously, whatever Carolina's struggles have been running the ball might simply be fixed by playing against a defense that always used to stuff the run. The Steelers haven't been good against the run since 2012, which was, not coincidentally, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's final season with the team.

Hampton rarely lost ground while clogging the middle of the defense and often commanded double-teams. The Steelers' current defensive line has not consistently tied up blockers or maintained assigned gaps and, through two games, Pittsburgh has given up 170 rushing yards per game. The line simply has to start winning more battles up front for the run defense -- and the Steelers' defense as a whole -- to show significant improvement.

Cam Newton is a running threat. Does the Carolina quarterback gain most of his rushing yards after escaping a collapsing pocket, or will Carolina run some read-option with him?

Newton: What? No comparing Newton to Y.A. Tittle? Seriously, it's a combination of both, and the healthier Newton gets with his fractured ribs the more he will run. He took off for 13 yards Sunday on a read-option play that was similar to, if not exactly like, one coach Ron Rivera said his quarterback should have handed off on in practice to protect the ribs.

The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March still isn't completely healed, which might explain why Newton looked somewhat awkward at times running against the Lions. But what makes him a weapon is you don't know when he's going to take off, whether it's a scramble when the pocket collapses or the read-option. He also refuses to slide and protect himself, as we saw last week. If the Steelers are as bad as you say at stopping the run, I'm sure Newton will take a few shots at them with his legs.

What about Ben Roethlisberger? Is Big Ben still a quarterback who can carry a team?

Brown: He'd better be able to carry the Steelers because Roethlisberger is the biggest hope they have of returning to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons. I think he is still playing at a high level and I'm not ready raise serious concerns about Roethlisberger and the offense, although the Steelers have managed just nine points in their past six series. If the offensive line holds up, the Steelers are going to score points with the talent they have at the other skills positions, such as receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell.

David, where are the Panthers vulnerable, and are you surprised by their 2-0 start?

Newton: I'll answer the second part first. Not really. I actually picked them to start 3-0. The defense really is as good as advertised, and I figured that would be enough at Tampa Bay and at home against Detroit. But I was surprised that Newton didn't play in the opener and that the offense played so well without him. I've been saying since early in organized team activities that Carolina is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago, and so far that group has proved me right.

As far as vulnerability, the lack of a running game has to be concerning. The Panthers want to control the clock and want to keep the pressure off of Newton having to run. Without a running game, that gets tough. It will also be interesting to see whether Hardy's situation ultimately becomes a distraction. So far, it appears to have galvanized the locker room.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For much of the past two years -- even much of training camp this year -- Jonathan Stewart was the Carolina Panthers' running back that spent most of practice riding the stationary bicycle and working with the trainer.

Talk about role reversals.

Stewart
On Wednesday, Stewart and practice squad player Darrin Reaves were the only healthy backs with DeAngelo Williams (thigh), Mike Tolbert (chest) and Fozzy Whittaker (thigh) unable to participate.

On Thursday, Tolbert returned on a limited basis, but Williams and Whittaker still were held out.

"Yesterday seemed like the roles switched," said Stewart, plagued by ankle injuries the past two seasons and a hamstring injury at the start of training camp. "Usually, I'm that guy on the bike."

While coach Ron Rivera was optimistic Williams would be available for Sunday night's prime time game against Pittsburgh, Tolbert remains a question mark.

Rivera said Tolbert still isn't in position to take a hit after taking a blow to the rib area during Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit. Tolbert called the hit from defensive tackle Nick Fairely the hardest he's taken in seven NFL seasons.

Rivera hasn't ruled out the possibility that Reaves could be brought up from the practice squad to fill defensive end Greg Hardy's roster spot.

The team's 2013 sack leader on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

Rivera also didn't rule out calling up a wide receiver, Stephen Hill or Marcus Lucas, if a lingering thigh injury sidelines Jason Avant. Hill played the past two seasons with the New York Jets before being released.

Avant went from limited in Wednesday's practice to not participating.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Catching up on the non-Greg Hardy happenings around the Carolina Panthers:
  • Alexander
    Defensive end Frank Alexander, suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse penalty, made a rare appearance in the locker room on Wednesday.
    But Alexander isn't one of the players that had his penalty reduced or revoked by the NFL's new performance-enhancing drug policy. He is still out through the Sept. 28 game at Baltimore.

    When he returns, Alexander likely will play a big role in replacing Hardy (sorry, not all of this is non-Hardy), who was placed on the NFL commissioner's exempt list on Wednesday until his domestic violence case is resolved.

    At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, Alexander is closer to the all-around player Hardy was. Wes Horton, who started in Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit when Hardy was deactivated, played mostly on first and second down as a run-stopper. Mario Addison, who had 2.5 sacks against the Lions, came in on third down and passing situations.

    Coach Ron Rivera calls Addison a "situational player."

    Alexander, Rivera's most valuable player during training camp, is an every-down player. Though he is not able to practice, he is able to remain around the team during his suspension to keep up with what the defense is doing.

    "I don't want to really talk about this right now," Alexander said. "I'll get to it [when I'm back]."
  • According to ESPN Stats and Information, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had one of his better games against the blitz in Sunday's victory. In his first start of 2014 after missing the opener with fractured ribs, Newton completed 9 of 11 pass attempts for 101 yards when Detroit blitzed. That was the second-highest completion percentage of Newton's career in that situation.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers fans traditionally have purchased large numbers of tickets for games against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. There have been some games in which there appeared to be more fans with "Terrible Towels" than those wearing Carolina blue. So backup quarterback Derek Anderson made a plea to the home crowd on Twitter heading into Sunday night's primetime game against the Steelers.

    .

    Said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin: "Derek must be calling on his Cleveland experience. It’s something that we appreciate. It’s not something we take for granted. We realize that there’s responsibility that comes with that, and the responsibility is to entertain our fans and we take that very seriously."
    Stay tuned.
  • Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell, a big part of Carolina's No. 2-ranked defense a year ago, told "The Charlotte Observer" there is a big drop-off in the Panthers' pass-rush without Hardy.

    "Absolutely," Mitchell said. "He’s one of the better pass-rushers in the National Football League. I don’t think they’re going to get better not having him play. That would be ludicrous."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott took a wait-until-after-the-season approach on Monday when asked if his current unit is better than the one that finished last season second in the league.

I'm not as patient.

It is better.

To be fair, how much better -- and maybe for how long -- depends on the future of defensive end Greg Hardy. Last season's sack leader was placed on the inactive list before Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit as the team re-evaluated his domestic violence case.

[+] EnlargeMario Addison
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers have four more sacks (7) now than they had after two games last season, and that unit led the league with 60.
Hardy played a huge role in the defense's overall success a year ago because of his ability to play end, tackle and drop into coverage. It took two players to replace what he does on Sunday.

At the same time, Carolina's ability to shut down Detroit's high-powered offense without Hardy is evidence that this unit is better because of depth, experience and leadership.

It's definitely better than last year's defense two games into the season, a big reason Carolina is 2-0 instead of 0-2 as it started 2013. Just look at the numbers as the Panthers head into Sunday night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

They rank fifth in the NFL in total defense (293.5 ypg.) and second in scoring defense (10.4 ppg.). A year ago after two games, they were 26th (403 ypg.) and 18th (18 ppg.).

You can go down the line -- rush defense, pass defense, sacks and turnovers -- and Carolina is significantly better now.

The secondary that was questioned throughout the offseason is a primary reason. Two weeks into last season the Panthers were in a state of disarray with starting free safety Charles Godfrey suffering a season-ending Achilles injury and the left cornerback position unsettled.

This year's group, despite the loss of safety Mike Mitchell to Pittsburgh and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to Minnesota, is a solid mix of veterans and young players who have quickly come together as a cohesive group.

They already have three interceptions compared to one the first two games last season. Left cornerback Antoine Cason has an interception and a forced fumble.

"I really thought the secondary put on one of their better games out there,'' McDermott said.

Experience up front also has helped. Tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short were rookies a year ago. Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein, the anchors at weakside linebacker, were basically special team contributors until Carolina traded Jon Beason to the New York Giants before the third game.

And as hard as it might be to believe, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is better -- particularly in terms of pass defense and forcing turnovers.

He preserved the Tampa win with a late forced fumble. His knockdown of a pass 25 yards down field against Detroit is one only a handful of middle linebackers could make.

McDermott doesn't have to wait to say Kuechly is better now than last season.

"I would say so,'' he said.

Statistically, it's hard argue the entire defense isn't better. The Panthers are allowing 4.6 fewer points and 7.7 fewer yards than last year's team.

They have four more sacks (7) now than they had after two games last season, and that unit led the league with 60. They have twice as many forced turnovers (6) from a team that finished tied for sixth with 30.

"I think we are headed in that direction," coach Ron Rivera said when asked if this defense was better. "We have a lot of guys that have been in the system for [a few] seasons now. You are starting to see where guys don't have to make checks or calls. They just know what their assignments are.

"We can be better, and we've still got a long ways to go."

On that McDermott agreed.

And the ultimate goal, as linebacker Thomas Davis said, isn't to be better than last season's defense. It's to be the best defense in the NFL.

Panthers show depth in replacing Hardy

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
8:00
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Matthew Stafford and Wes HortonAP Photo/Mike McCarnWes Horton helped the Panthers keep pressure on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Replacing defensive end Greg Hardy wasn't as easy as it looked for the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

It took two players.

You could argue three.

Wes Horton played first and second down for much of the 24-7 victory over the Detroit Lions. He occasionally gave way to second-round draft pick Kony Ealy. He was the run-stopper, doing the dirty work that doesn't draw headlines.

Mario Addison came in on third down and obvious passing situations. He got the headlines with 2.5 sacks.

Hardy can stop the run and get the headline sacks. He had a team-best 15 sacks a year ago to earn his first Pro Bowl berth. He also can play tackle and drop back into pass coverage.

[+] EnlargeMario Addison
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsMario Addison (97) notched 2.5 sacks of Stafford.
But Hardy didn't play on Sunday. The Panthers deactivated him under intense public scrutiny surrounding his July 15 conviction for assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend.

Hardy is arguably the team's most valuable defensive player outside of linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Hardy played 51 of 56 snaps in the opener at Tampa Bay, a 20-14 victory. Addison was in for 10 snaps and Horton 13.

"Greg is a high-energy guy," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said after the victory over Detroit. "He brings an attitude to our team, and we definitely missed him out there."

Coach Ron Rivera said Hardy will return and play again this season. He didn't say whether it would be Sunday night against Pittsburgh or the following week at Baltimore, but he made it clear Hardy likely would play before his Nov. 17 appeal in front of a jury.

Fortunately for the Panthers, they have the numbers to replace him. And after two more games, they'll have even more depth with Frank Alexander returning from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse program. Rivera said Alexander was the most valuable player in training camp.

What Sunday showed was the Panthers not only have one of the best fronts in the NFL, they have one of the deepest.

"Absolutely," Horton said. "It doesn't matter who gets the start. Everyone is trained at a high level."

Against Detroit, they all played at a high level. Let me tell you about the two main characters.

Horton (6-foot-5, 265) signed with Carolina as an undrafted rookie out of the University of Southern California last season. He had two sacks and eight tackles in 2013.

He wears 96. He has a tightly trimmed chinstrap beard. His dad, Mike Horton, was Gemini on "American Gladiators." Wes had two sacks last season, both against Tampa Bay.

Addison is a fourth-year player from Troy, originally signed by the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2011. After bouncing between Indianapolis and Washington, he finally settled in at Carolina near the end of the 2012 season.

He had 2.5 sacks in a reserve role last season. The Panthers gave him a two-year extension in June. During a trip to Puerto Rico to celebrate he fell off a jet ski and thought he was going to drown.

"I've never been so scared in my life," he said during training camp. "I don't know how to swim, so without the life vest I would have died."

Addison wears No. 97. He also has a beard, but it is long and scruffy. He is considered undersized at 6-2 and 255 pounds. But what he lacks in size he makes up for in speed.

"He's one of the fastest guys I've ever seen at practice," center Ryan Kalil said. "The guy runs around like he's a linebacker."

The speed came in handy late against Detroit when the Lions had to pass. Their tackles couldn't match Addison's first step coming off the edge.

Rivera calls him a "situational football player for us."

"He is speed off the edge and a forceful special teams guy," he said. "Guys understand their roles, and they do their roles the best that they can. That was a great example for us."

It also was a reminder of how much it takes to replace Hardy.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton missed the season opener with broken ribs. Then defensive end Greg Hardy was deactivated for the second game.

For most of the first two weeks of the NFL season, the focus on the Carolina Panthers has been off the field.

They're 2-0 on it, in case anybody hasn't noticed.

The Panthers have shown in consecutive weeks that they are bigger than one player. When Newton was out, backup Derek Anderson had a top-five quarterback rating in a victory at Tampa Bay. In Hardy's absence, backup Mario Addison stepped up with 2.5 sacks in Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit.

The Panthers faced a week of scrutiny for not disciplining Hardy, who is appealing a July 15 guilty verdict on domestic violence charges. The criticism coincided with the Baltimore Ravens' release of Ray Rice, who was shown on video punching his then-fiancée, and the Minnesota Vikings' decision to deactivate Adrian Peterson, who is charged with negligent injury to a child.

"For us, the biggest thing is not to get caught up in all the sensationalism and really let the facts play out before we start passing judgment and having opinions about it publicly," Panthers center Ryan Kalil said, describing how he and his teammates are approaching the Hardy situation.

"That's what we've decided as a team, and that's what we're doing. And the biggest thing, at the end of the day we still have a job to do."

So far, they've done it well. Ron Rivera's team is focused so much on winning that, as wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery noted, some players weren't really aware of Hardy being deactivated until they got on the field.

"It starts with the head man," Cotchery said. "Every day, Coach Rivera focuses us in on the game plan."

The defense has proven to be every bit as good as the one that finished second in the league a season ago. It might be one of the deepest, too, as the Panthers didn't miss a beat without Hardy.

"We're a complete team," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. "It's not about one man around here. It's all about us coming together and playing as a team, offensively, defensively and special teams.

"When we're able to do that, we can be a special bunch."

Sunday's win indeed was a team victory. Seven different players caught passes from Newton, who compiled a rating of 100.2 after a slow start.

Even placekicker Graham Gano had a fumble recovery.

And did I mention leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (thigh) didn't play, either?

"We're just trying to win a championship," Cotchery said.

That has been the focus since San Francisco spoiled last season's storybook run by defeating Carolina 23-10 in the playoffs.

"No disrespect, it's not about what you guys say, it's not about what anybody says outside this organization," Newton said to reporters. "At the end of the day, if the 53 guys that are ready to go come day are on the same page, there's no telling what our team can do.

"That's what we're showing, guys that believe in each other, believing in ourselves and not playing for ourselves, playing for the persons that are next to us. With that attitude we'll go a long way."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy returned to practice on Thursday, a day after being excused from practice to meet with the attorney representing him in his domestic violence case.

Coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday that Hardy would start Sunday's home opener against Detroit if he returned on Thursday and there were no issues with him picking up the game plan.

Hardy led the team in sacks last season with 15, and had one of the team's three in Sunday's 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay.

Rivera made it clear Hardy's absence had nothing to do with impending discipline from the NFL regarding his July 15 guilty verdict for assaulting and threatening ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder in May.

Neither the NFL nor the Panthers have disciplined Hardy because the verdict is under appeal. A court date of Nov. 17 has been set, but Hardy's attorney says the jury trial likely won't occur until sometime in 2015.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was supposed to be in Charlotte on Wednesday for a function in which Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was given an award. He canceled those plans to return to New York.

Richardson gave an emotional statement in which he said he was "against domestic violence'' in response to critics who believe he's been too lenient with Hardy. Sources said Hardy did not meet with Goodell, who was in North Carolina for a couple of events.

Meanwhile, quarterback Cam Newton continued to look good in practice and appears set to make his first start of 2014. Newton was held out of the opener to give his fractured ribs an extra week to heal.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At 6-foot-3 and more than 250 pounds, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is an imposing figure in any room. He exudes power.

But Wednesday night, as he stood in the McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square to receive the Echo Award Against Indifference, he broke down and cried.

Richardson, 78, had to stop several times to gather himself as he addressed critics who have accused him of being too lenient on Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who has been playing for the Panthers while appealing a guilty verdict on domestic violence charges.

For months, Richardson and the Panthers seemed to keep Hardy's legal situation from becoming a distraction to the team.

That has changed.

On Monday, video emerged of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out Janay Palmer -- then his fiancée, now his wife -- during an altercation in an Atlantic City casino elevator. The Ravens responded to the video by releasing Rice. The NFL, which had previously suspended Rice two games for the incident, made the suspension indefinite.

This put the spotlight on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who was scheduled to attend Wednesday's Echo Award ceremony in Charlotte before a change of plans.

It put the spotlight back on Hardy, who missed Wednesday's practice to meet with the attorney representing him in his domestic violence case.

It put the spotlight on Richardson, who has been criticized for letting the legal process play out instead of punishing Hardy.

"Standing before you tonight, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge an issue weighing heavily on our sport and our society," Richardson said as he struggled to breathe and maintain his composure. "When it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference. I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple.

"To those who would suggest that we've been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge. Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity. ... I will work hard to continue to earn your trust."

Earlier in the day, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was terse with his answers to questions regarding Hardy's whereabouts. It came to a head when Rivera was asked what his focal points would be in preparation for the Detroit Lions' upcoming visit.

"Beating them," Rivera said. "And that's it. This is football. This is what we're doing here. We're trying to prepare for a football game against a very good football team.

"There's a lot of things going on. I get that. I understand that. But at the same time, we're going to continue about the business. It's a very tragic situation that's going on [with Rice and his wife]. I have a tremendous amount of empathy and respect for the people who are in this situation. It's very difficult. But I'm going to only talk about football from this point on. Just understand that. OK?"

Panthers players did a good job of avoiding the topic by basically choosing not to talk about it. But it won't go away. When Hardy returns Thursday, the focus will be his meeting with his attorney.

In the meantime, Greg Hardy will keep practicing. He’ll keep playing. The Panthers will continue to face criticism. And some critics want Hardy punished just like Rice was, even though Rice admitted guilt by entering into a pretrial intervention program. Hardy hasn't admitted to anything and his appeal is pending.

Jerry Richardson likes to be in control. He doesn't mind making hard decisions. He fired his owns sons to make the Panthers organization stronger.

But on this, he apparently feels powerless. It has left him in tears.

And the tears are a sign that neither he nor the organization can keep Hardy from being a distraction any longer.

W2W4: Panthers at Buccaneers

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
8:00
AM ET
The Carolina Panthers haven't won an opener since the 2008 season. That's the bad news.

The good news is Carolina isn't close to the Cleveland Browns in terms of opening-day futility. The Browns have lost their last nine openers and have won only one of their last 16.

The bad news is Carolina is tied for third in futility during that time, going 6-13 in openers since the franchise began playing in 1995. More bad news: The Panthers aren't 100 percent sure starting quarterback Cam Newton (fractured ribs) will play.

Even more bad news. Coach Ron Rivera is 0-3 in openers and the Panthers are opening at Tampa Bay, not Cleveland.

The good news is all of Rivera's openers have been close. The Panthers lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle 12-7 last season, fumbling inside the Seahawks' 10-yard line in the fourth quarter.

They lost 16-10 to Tampa Bay in 2012 and 28-21 to Arizona in 2011.

Carolina gets another opening shot at the Buccaneers in Sunday's 4:25 p.m. kickoff at Raymond James Stadium.

Here are three things to watch for:

1. Will Newton play? Newton said Thursday he was on pace to play and that the only thing that could disrupt that was to be hit by a car or chased by a tiger. Unless there is a zoo break in Tampa, I don't see any way fractured ribs suffered two weeks ago will sideline the fourth-year player. It all depends on whether the Panthers believe Newton is well enough to take a hit. He won't be 100 percent. If he plays, it will be worth keeping an eye on how he throws early and whether he's willing to take off and run. He had to run 11 times at Tampa Bay last season, and the Bucs should be stronger defensively. The Panthers likely will need to use Newton's mobility to win this one. That he'll be playing behind an untested offensive line makes that more likely. If Newton doesn't play, the less mobile Derek Anderson could be a sitting duck.

2. Key rookies: Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina's rookie wide receiver, has a lot of pressure to replace Steve Smith as the team's No. 1 receiver. At 6-5, 240, Newton may need a big target like Benjamin if his throws aren't as sharp. Benjamin doesn't appear impacted by the pressure, which is a positive. This also will be a big test for third-round pick Trai Turner at right guard. Even if he doesn't start or play the entire way, he'll likely get opportunities. He'll get them against Gerald McCoy, arguably the best defensive tackle in the NFL.

3. Quarterback pressure: I'm not talking about the pressure on Newton. I'm talking about the pressure the Panthers must put on Tampa Bay's Josh McCown. Carolina sacked Buccaneers quarterbacks eight times last season, and only three teams allowed sacks more frequently than Tampa Bay in 2013. Coach Lovie Smith has overhauled the line, but it'll still be new and going against a defense that led the league in sacks last season with 60. Because of the uncertainties Carolina has on offense, pressuring McCown and keeping this low scoring will be key. Keep an eye on Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy. He led the Panthers in sacks last season with 15. He'll be going up against left tackle Anthony Collins, a player Carolina tried to sign as a free agent out of Cincinnati.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "The Kraken" has been outlawed, at least in terms of face paint.

According to a photograph on a bulletin board in the middle of the Carolina Panthers' locker room on Thursday, the black face paint that Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy uses on game day to transform into his on-field persona is a violation of the uniform code.

 

Team officials confirmed the face paint used as Hardy does was included in other code violations sent in a memo by the league office. Team officials were unaware what the fine would be for such a violation. A spokesman from the league office said the rule is not new, but didn't say what fines would accompany it and could not say whether Hardy has been fined for the violation in the past.

Last season, quarterback Cam Newton was fined $10,000 because the clips that affix the visor to his helmet had an Under Armour logo. Hardy was fined $5,000 for wearing gold cleats in a game. Detroit safety Louis Delmas was fined $5,250 for wearing the wrong colored socks.

It's well documented that Hardy spends time before games painting his face and adding black contact lenses to create "The Kraken," a mythical sea monster.

Before a Sunday night game at New Orleans he introduced himself as "The Kraken" from Hogwarts.

Hardy led Carolina in sacks last season with 15. He was given the franchise tag, guaranteeing him $13.1 million this season, so if he wants to keep the face paint, he has the money to pay for it.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was back throwing on Monday, his first participation in a full practice since suffering fractured ribs during an Aug. 22 exhibition game at New England.

Newton
Newton
Newton said last Wednesday he had no doubt he would start in Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay, and nothing he did early in practice would dispute that.

The first pick of the 2011 draft, who hasn't missed a start at Carolina, showed no limitation in his throwing motion. He ran between drills, something he didn't do all of last week, and had a full range of motion during stretching.

Newton was wearing a larger flak jacket than the one he was wearing when New England linebacker Jamie Collins stepped on the back of Carolina's franchise quarterback at the end of a 7-yard run to cause the fracture.

He did not appear hindered by that.

Also back at practice after sitting out the exhibition finale at Pittsburgh were defensive ends Charles Johnson (hamstring) and Greg Hardy, (shoulder) and right guard Trai Turner (groin).

Turner started the first two preseason games before suffering the injury. The team released Chris Scott, who started the last two preseason games, on Saturday.

Either Turner or Fernando Velasco, signed in July, is expected to start against Tampa.

Backup quarterback Derek Anderson, who suffered a bruised hand against the Steelers, showed no ill effects from the injury.
A closer look at the 53-man roster for the Carolina Panthers as they prepare for Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay:

Offense

Quarterbacks (3) -- Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Joe Webb
  • Newton's offseason ankle surgery opened the door for Webb to join the team and Newton's fractured rib two weeks ago made it a necessity to keep Webb on the roster. Don't get me wrong, Webb played well enough in the preseason to earn a spot. But if Newton were perfectly healthy, the former UAB quarterback wouldn't be here.
Running backs (4) -- DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whittaker
  • Whittaker is the biggest surprise in that he wasn't on the roster when training camp opened. But he led the team in rushing during the preseason and gives the team another punishing runner who sets the tone for this ball-control offense.
Wide Receivers (5) --Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Brenton Bersin, Philly Jones
  • There were major questions about who Newton would throw to after Steve Smith was released in March and Carolina's next three wide receivers signed with other teams. Benjamin, the team's first-round draft pick out of Florida State, answered many of those questions with a strong preseason. Bersin wasn't a player many expect to be here in March over Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt, but he's proven to be a solid route runner and receiver. Jones made the team primarily because of his kick-return skills. Don't be surprised to see Carolina add another player here.
Tight ends (4) -- Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Brandon Williams, Richie Brockel
  • The second-deepest position on the team behind the defensive line. The decision to reach an injury settlement with Mike McNeil had to be tough because he was signed to a two-year deal in free agency to be the blocking tight end. The emergence of Williams made him expendable.
Offensive linemen (10) -- Ryan Kalil, Byron Bell, Nate Chandler, Amini Silatolu, Trai Turner, Garry Williams, Fernando Velasco, Brian Folkerts, Andrew Norwell, David Foucault
  • The decision to cut guard Chris Scott, who had eight starts last season, was the most intriguing. But it says a lot about what the Panthers think of Norwell and the flexibility of Velasco, who can play center and guard. Keeping Foucault on the 53-man roster was probably more out of fear he wouldn't clear waivers so the team could put him on the practice squad.
Defense

Ends (5) -- Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, Mario Addison, Kony Ealy, Wes Horton
  • Plenty of talent to go around here. That second-round draft pick Ealy is third on the depth chart says all you need to know. And when Frank Alexander returns from a four-game suspension for violating the substance abuse policy, this position will get stronger.
Tackles (4) -- Star Lotulelei, Colin Cole, Kawann Short, Dwan Edwards
  • The same foursome that helped establish Carolina as the league's second-ranked defense a year ago. That ends Hardy and Ealy can move over and play tackle as well once again gives the Panthers one of the league's best rotations up front.
Linebackers (6) -- Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Chase Blackburn, A.J. Klein, Jason Williams, Ben Jacobs
  • No real surprises here. The decision to release D.J. Smith wasn't easy, but he was re-signed to the practice squad.
Cornerbacks (5) -- Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Charles Godfrey, Josh Norman, Bene' Benwikere
  • There simply wasn't room for Josh Thomas, who began last season as one of the top four corners. The starters are set with Cason and White, and Godfrey and Benwikere sharing the nickel spot that Captain Munnerlyn had last season.
Safeties (4) -- Roman Harper, Thomas DeCoud, Colin Jones, Tre Boston
  • The Panthers showed what they thought of Boston, their fourth-round pick, by leaving him on the roster ahead of Robert Lester, even though Boston missed most of the preseason recovering from sports hernia surgery. Fortunately, a new rule allowed Carolina to put Lester on the practice squad.
Specialists (3) -- Place-kicker Graham Gano, punter Brad Nortman, deep snapper J.J. Jansen
  • There never was a doubt these three would be here.

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