SAN JOSE, Calif. – Charles Johnson knows his role. The veteran defensive end is tasked with pressuring the quarterback consistently.
In every season since 2010, Johnson posted at least 8.5 sacks – until this year.
Johnson notched a sack in the 2015 opener at Jacksonville, but a hamstring injury suffered in Week 3 landed him on short-term injured reserve, forcing him to miss seven games. He returned for Week 12, but wasn't able to add to his sack total.
Johnson holds himself to a very high standard and he desperately wanted to produce in the postseason. During Carolina's Divisional Playoff victory over Seattle, he was credited with a sack after forcing Russell Wilson out of bounds for no gain. Finally, he had a sack on the stat sheet, but the true impact play he longed for still alluded him.
It finally came in the NFC Championship against Arizona.
With Carolina leading 24-7 late in the second quarter, Johnson bull-rushed right tackle Bobbie Massie and reached out with his left hand as quarterback Carson Palmer readied to throw. Johnson made direct contact with the ball, sending it out of Palmer's grasp for safety Tre Boston to make the fumble recovery.
An ecstatic Johnson ran off the field with a finger pointed to the sky.
"That felt good," Johnson recalled Wednesday. "I want to contribute to help my team win. That's all I want to do. On our defense, everybody makes plays so you have to maximize your opportunity when you get it."
Defensive line coach Eric Washington, who credited the Johnson for continuing to play within the system despite his lack of individual production, was one of the first to greet him on the sideline.
"When he came off the field I must have squeezed the crap out of him because I was so happy for him," Washington said. "He had worked so hard to get himself back. Conditioning and timing come into play for an edge rusher and he just kept working at it."
When Johnson is collapsing the pocket, it takes Carolina's defense to another level. The Panthers sure hope that strip-sack against the Cardinals kick-starts the leader of their defensive line as they brace for Denver quarterback Peyton Manning.
"Everybody benefits from an infusion of confidence," Washington said. "I think that's going to help him on Sunday."
Johnson, a nine-year veteran, will be playing in his first Super Bowl against the Broncos, a team that features two of the league's high-profile edge rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
Throughout his highly productive career, Johnson hasn't been mentioned in that top-tier group. His 63.5 sacks are second-most in Panthers history, but he's never been to a Pro Bowl.
Perhaps the Super Bowl will bring out more production from Johnson, a veteran determined to make the most of this opportunity he's worked so hard for.
"I know how much how he wanted this," defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "I'm happy to see him in this position now. I want this for him."
View photos of the Panthers from practice on Wednesday at San Jose State University.