Bookend defensive ends
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked by the Panthers' dynamic duo six times last season alone.
"We know that every time that we game plan to go against Carolina, we have to account for those two guys," Ryan said. "With his (Hardy's) capability of rushing the passer and his physical play against the run, he and Charles Johnson are two guys in that defensive front four that can change the game."
Johnson, a Georgia native who won a state championship in the Georgia Dome, has recorded a sack in four of his six games against the Falcons since becoming a full-time starter in 2010. Last season in Atlanta, Johnson established the Panthers' single-game record with 3.5 sacks of Ryan.
"They bring it out of me a little bit, but I try to come out and play every game like that," Johnson said.
Hardy is a relative newcomer to the party but enjoyed a coming-out party of sorts against the Falcons in his second season as a starter in 2012, dropping Ryan once in each game. Hardy also got into a bit of verbal sparring with the heated division rivals last year. After Ryan helped the Falcons prevail in Atlanta despite being sacked seven times, he not-so-politely invited the Panthers to exit the premises. Hardy returned the favor when the Panthers won the rematch in Charlotte.
"It's an emotional game, on both sides," Ryan said. "Sometimes you're fired up out there and things come out, but they certainly got after us the second time. We went up there and they took care of us pretty good.
"So it's one of those things when you're playing a team in the division, it's emotional, you're into it. I have a lot of a respect for their team, there's no question about that, and certainly a lot of respect for their defense and what they're capable of doing."
Entering Sunday's game against the Falcons, Hardy and Johnson have combined for 11 sacks. Just one starting defensive end duo – Robert Quinn and Chris Long of the St. Louis Rams – has combined for more sacks this season.
That has helped the Panthers defense rank second in the NFL in points allowed per game and third in yards allowed, though Hardy and Johnson haven't helped the cause with their pass-rushing ability alone.
"We have to account for those two guys and certainly have to make adjustments to protect in the pass game, but we also have to figure out how we're going to run the ball against both of them," Ryan said. "I don't think either of them are one-trick guys. They do really well against the run and they do really well against the pass, and that makes it all the more difficult to go against them."