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All hands on deck for Panthers at DE

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- And then there were three.

There was a time not too long ago when the Carolina Panthers were as deep as any team in the NFL at defensive end.

Pro Bowler Greg Hardy was starting on the left side after leading the team in sacks last season with 15. Charles Johnson, third on the team's all-time sack list, was on the right side.

Behind them was Wes Horton, Mario Addison and second-round draft pick Kony Ealy. Waiting in the wings was Frank Alexander, serving a four-game suspension.

But as Addison stood on the practice field on Wednesday, reality sunk in.

"There were only three of us," he said.

Hardy is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. Alexander is suspended for the next 10 games for violating the league's substance abuse policy after coming off a four-game suspension.

And Johnson was in the training room for the second straight day with a hip flexor.

Coach Ron Rivera is optimistic Johnson will return on Friday, but as we've seen throughout this season when you don't practice on Wednesday or Thursday you typically don't play.

So the Panthers are making adjustments. They are rotating defensive tackle Kawann Short (6-3, 315) and linebacker Jason Williams (6-1, 245) at end. They've even worked tackle Star Lotulelei (6-2, 320) there some.

It's all hands on deck.

Rivera spent more time on Thursday talking about Williams, a former end in a 3-4 scheme, in that role. But that's assuming Johnson can go. If he can't, Short could play a bigger role.

His teammates don't seem concerned.

"First of all, you have to know what you're doing, and Kawann knows all the defensive end plays, alignment, all that kind of stuff," Horton said. "He brings his own strengths to the table. Being a bigger guy, he can bring a solid power rush.

"He can play it. I know all the coaches are confident he can play it. If Charles isn't ready to go, there's a good chance he'll be out there."

Addison is comfortable if Short or Lotulelei moves outside.

"He will kill it, man," he said specifically of Lotulelei. "Anything you throw in front of Star, he'll kill it."

The added size on the edge definitely could stop the bleeding for a defense that has surrendered 391 yards rushing the past two weeks against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Short and Williams also could create matchup issues on the corner that could help create pressure for a unit that has only one sack the past two games.

Johnson, who has 54 career sacks, has none in four games.

"One thing [Williams] showed in the preseason is he's a terrific blitzer coming off the edge," Rivera said. "If he was a little bit taller, he would be a starting outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense -- that's for sure."

Ealy said the past two days have been "heavy" concerning the extra reps the three healthy ends have taken. He also said that's good from the standpoint of added conditioning and experience.

"I'm very comfortable," the former Missouri standout said. "I'm not worried if somebody doesn't start or can't go. ... You'll see a different side of Kony Ealy. You'll see the player I was in college."

The numbers may be down, but the confidence isn't.

"We've got to step it up more if Charles doesn't play," Addison said. "We've still got a couple of men left that can get the job done."