Pass Rusher Profile: Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy
Ben Stockwell's Profiles series takes a twist to highlight the defensive end duo powering the Panthers' pass rush.
Pass Rusher Profile: Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy
In the previous installments in this series we’ve looked at some of the league’s premier individual pass rushers, but for our sixth we’re going to run a combination and take a look at one of the league’s emerging pass-rusher partnerships.
Since the Panthers lost Julius Peppers to Chicago in the 2010 free agency period they have won only 15 games, but in spite of such a high profile loss, their defensive end pairing has gradually flourished into one of the league’s better pairings. In that first season without Peppers it was Charles Johnson who shone en route to collecting 78 total pressures and a 4-3 defensive end best 14.1 Pass Rushing Productivity rating. Though 2011 was a significant step backward for Johnson, his raise back to prominence in 2012 coincided with Greg Hardy’s continued gradual growth to give the Panthers an excellent and productive defensive end duo despite of the lack of any sort of inside presence throughout this period.
Johnson: Outside pass rush (26 total pressures, pressure every 18.9 pass rushes)
Hardy: Inside pass rush (16 total pressures, 56.3% conversion rate)
Working from opposite sides of the Panthers’ defensive front last season, Hardy and Johnson brought broadly similar pass rusher profiles to the table. Both were inside the league’s Top 30 in terms of their rate at getting pressure both inside and outside of opposing pass rushers while ranking sixth (Johnson) and seventh (Hardy) in the league in terms of getting pressure via bullrush. While neither player hit the highest of heights in any one category, they were both well-rounded in their ability to beat pass protectors by a variety of means.
Johnson’s strength to the outside of opposing blockers was a continuation of his 2011 form where again he was among the league’s Top 30 in spite of his overall performance drop off. His seven sacks to the outside of pass protectors this season and his six in 2011 highlight a pass rusher who is not only productive in terms of generating pressure from that tack, but one who is also capable of converting that pressure into sacks. His 13 sacks to the outside of opponents in the last two years is bettered by only three players: Cameron Wake (16) and John Abraham and Cliff Avril who registered 14 apiece across the two seasons.
Hardy was only two outside-rush sacks behind Johnson this season and made up for that by registering two sacks more to the inside of opposing pass rushers than Johnson managed. This leads into the strongest area of Hardy’s play, namely converting inside pressure into hits and sacks.
While Johnson created more total pressure to the inside of opposing pass rushers (22 to 16) and generated inside pressure at a more frequent rate (22.4 rushes per pressure to Hardy’s 27.5), he converted less of that pressure into hits and sacks than Hardy managed. Of Hardy’s 16 pressures to the inside of opposing pass rushers he registered five hits and four sacks, both of which placed him inside the league’s Top 10 and his conversion percentage of 56.3% was third-best among edge rushers with at least 10 inside-rush pressures.
Only Bruce Irvin (10 of 16, 62.5%) and Aldon Smith (15 of 26, 57.7%) had higher conversion rates than Hardy who took a giant step forward from his 2011 mark. Only 12 months ago, as a sign of his strides in his 2012 season, Hardy converted only three of his 14 inside pressures into hits and sacks which was only just inside the league’s Top 40 (only 10 edge rushers had a lower conversion rate in 2011).
Johnson: 75 total pressures, 33.3% conversion rate
Hardy: No obvious weakness
While Hardy made strides in his conversion rate in 2011, Johnson held station in spite of his increased productivity as a pass rusher. In both his 2011 and 2012 seasons Johnson converted only a third of his pressure into sacks and hits — below the league average each year. While Johnson’s conversion rate is solid when he beats blockers inside and out, it is nothing more than that. In each category he is around the league average and when combined with his poor conversion percentage on bullrush pressure, he ends up below the league average in each season.
In the 2011 and 2012 seasons combined, Johnson registered 23 pressures by way of bullrush (a mark only bettered by Dwight Freeney, Elvis Dumervil, Ryan Kerrigan and Aldon Smith) but has only converted one of those 23 pressures into a sack or a hit, struggling to disengage from that bullrush and finish the play to the quarterback. The common theme here among the pass rushers getting most pressure by way of bullrush is not overawing power but rather they are, by and large, speedy and nimble pass rushers who have the ability to keep pass protectors off balance and then take advantage in the most physical manner possible.
However, where a player like Freeney converted registered a conversion percentage of 50% in 2011 or Aldon Smith converted more than 60% in 2012; Johnson has converted merely 4% in the two seasons combined. Clearly in being able to register 36 sacks in the last three seasons Johnson has the ability to finish a play, but in terms of his ability to consistently convert pressure into taking the quarterback to ground Johnson has not yet been able to establish himself as one of the league’s best.
By comparison, Hardy is (based on his improvements in the 2012 season) without a clear and obvious flaw in his pass rushing arsenal. However, for Hardy that means a very different thing than what it meant for Von Miller when we explored his pass rusher profile two weeks ago. While Miller is elite in just about any way you care to break down a pass rusher, Hardy is simply solid or above average in every category and that, at present, compiles into a good but somewhat-short-of-elite edge rusher and edge defender.
In 2011 one of his problems was, like Johnson, his ability to convert pressure into hits and sacks (26.7% conversion rate in 2011) but he moved that forwards to 42.3% only a year later. Another issue for Hardy in 2011 was consistency with more than one third of his total pressure (16 pressures) coming in three games, only picking up one hit and one sack in the final eight games of the season. A year later Hardy made clear strides in that area as well, only grading negatively as a pass rusher five times all season (only once below -1.0) and never going more than a week without a hit or a sack.
Tyler Polumbus: 11 total pressures (one game)
Donald Penn: 11 total pressures (two games)
The two victims of the Panthers’ pass rushing combination come from opposite sides of the line of scrimmage and by differing means. One of them (Penn) highlights the great strength of this pass rushing combination while the other (Polumbus) was the victim of the single-game feeding frenzy that helped the Panthers to register an unexpected road victory against a Redskins team that would ultimately land in the playoffs.
The Week 9 demolition, principally at the hands of Johnson, was the nadir of Polumbus’ largely disappointing 2012 season as he surrendered 11 pressures in a single game to the Panthers’ powerful pass-rushing duo. Johnson registered three sacks and six hurries against Polumbus while Hardy chipped in with a further two hurries as both pass rushers worked principally to Polumbus’ outside (Johnson scored one of his sacks with an inside move). This single game accounted for three of the eight sacks that Polumbus allowed all season, as many as Ryan Clady allowed in his 17-games.
The other pass protector who allowed almost a dozen pressures to this duo surrendered them all to Hardy who used his encounters against Penn to highlight his power as a bullrushing defensive end. Of Hardy’s 11 pressures in these two games, seven came by way of bullrush with a pair of inside and outside pressures a piece. As if to prove Hardy’s prowess as a power rushing defensive end, Penn would only surrender six other hurries by way of bullrush all season. Across the two games, Hardy accounted for more than half of the pressure Penn surrendered by way of bullrush all year and was almost solely responsible for Penn being (statistically) one of the league’s most susceptible to bullrush pressure.
New York Giants: 1 Ht, 1 Hu combined (Week 3)
In what was a disappointing season for the Panthers, expected by many to build on Cam Newton’s rookie season, it should be surprising to know that it wasn’t all rosy for this pairing and their biggest down night came in their Week 3 loss to the Giants on NFL Network. It what was an abysmal performance from the Carolina defense (team defense rating of -19.7, negative in every aspect) the two combined for a mere two pressures (one hit for Johnson, one hurry for Hardy) on 51 combined pass rushes.
Injury to David Diehl forced the Giants into fielding their strongest tackle pairing of William Beatty at left tackle and Sean Locklear at right tackle to which Hardy and Johnson had no answer on this occasion. Only one Carolina defender graded positively as a pass rusher in that game (Dwan Edwards, +0.2 with one sack and one hurry).
In the 2012 season no team running a 4-3 defense had a two such highly-graded pass rushers as the Carolina Panthers. Courtesy of both players improvements on their respective 2011 seasons, both Hardy and Johnson were among our Top-10-rated 4-3 defensive ends as pass rushers and if both players can maintain that form with the potential improvements at defensive tackle, the Panthers will have one of the very best defensive lines in the league.
Even considering his relative dip in form in 2011, Johnson’s profile as a pass rusher has been consistent. He is a pass rusher who generates high volumes of pressure but who struggles to convert a better than average amount of that pressure into hits and sacks. The question mark and potential for improvement is what happens to Hardy in this combination.
The pairing makes it difficult for a team to focus on taking one or the other away, but after an inconsistent 2011 season, which is the real Greg Hardy? …and can Hardy, in a contract year, take further strides forward and elevate his play towards the level of his teammate?
Reports out of Charlotte state that Hardy has dropped 14 pounds this offseason in an effort to get more explosive off the edge. With his ability to generate and convert pressure inside and by bullrush, an improvement at getting pressure outside could logically see him take another step forward and present the Panthers with a tough decision to make about whether they can afford to keep these two defensive ends together beyond this season.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.