Bookend defensive ends ready to team up

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CHARLOTTE – The idea of Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy starting together at defensive end for the Panthers has been locked in for seemingly a long time, so much so that it's easy to forget that the duo has actually only started together for a short time.

When the Panthers kick off the season Thursday night at the Denver Broncos, it will mark just the third time Johnson and Ealy have started opposite each other.

"Since I've been here, there have been a lot of guys come through who I haven't started together with before, but you see how we've gelled," said Johnson, entering his seventh consecutive season as a starter. "One thing about our group, we always try to factor in everybody that can get us to where we need to be. It's not a selfish team. That's what I love about our group. Everybody is trying to eat."

The last time Ealy and Johnson teamed up, they satisfied their appetite for destruction – also against Denver.

Ealy was electric, matching a Super Bowl record with three sacks while becoming the first player in 23 years to record multiple sacks, an interception and a forced fumble in the same playoff game.

"If we had won," Johnson said, "he probably would have been MVP."

Johnson for his part was rock-solid, recording a sack for the third consecutive postseason game and trailing only linebacker Luke Kuechly with seven tackles.

But that night, Johnson and Ealy weren't even in the starting lineup together. Since-retired Jared Allen started across from Johnson, while Ealy racked up his stunning stat line on an even more stunning 23 snaps.

"I just love having the opportunity to compete," Ealy said. "I know he's hungry, and he knows I'm hungry. We're hungry for a championship. We're hungry to win.

"But we're going to take it one day at a time. It's a process."

The process of Johnson and Ealy teaming up seemed to have arrived this time last year but soon was delayed. Recently waived defensive end Wes Horton started opposite Johnson in 2014, when Ealy was a rookie, but Ealy came on late with sacks in each of his last three games to earn a starting role for the 2015 opener.

Ealy started along with Johnson the first two games last season but started slow, and Horton got the starting nod in Week 3. In that game, Johnson suffered a hamstring injury that landed him on injured reserve/designated to return. Ealy took over on the left side in place of Johnson and flourished for stretches paired with Allen, who was acquired in a trade after Johnson's injury.

Ealy recorded a sack in five consecutive games, but when Johnson returned to action in Week 12, Johnson returned to the starting lineup with Allen. Ealy got plenty of reps in relief of both.

With Johnson slated to start on the left side for the fourth consecutive season, Ealy believes he can be equally as effective on the right side as he was on the left. His strip-sack in the Super Bowl came from the right side.

"It doesn't really matter. I don't pay attention to it," Ealy said. "It doesn't matter where you play, where you line up. As long as I generate energy and pressure, that's the only thing that matters."

It also might not even matter who officially starts at defensive end, as Ealy showed in the Super Bowl. Besides, head coach Ron Rivera is more concerned with who finishes and specifically how they finish.

"The one thing we don't want to see is Charles with 50 plays if we can help it. We want to see him and Kony right around 35, 45 plays," Rivera said. "If you play more than that, you start to worry about fatigue for those guys. We have to make sure we balanced in terms of what everybody is getting."

Johnson and Ealy might not be used to starting together, but this will mark the first time since Johnson became a full-time starter in 2010 that he's had the same bookend for Week 1 two consecutive seasons.

"I think we're going to be able to do the same thing everybody else has been able to do," Ealy said, "and that's create havoc and pressure back in the backfield."

View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game at Denver.

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