Panthers will try to test Saints rookie LT

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The news that the New Orleans Saints were giving a rookie his first NFL start at left tackle on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium apparently hadn't traveled fast enough to reach Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy.

"I do?" Hardy said on Wednesday when told he'd have a player who hadn't taken a regular-season snap at tackle starting opposite him. "Who I got?"

Terron Armstead.

"What happened to the last guy?" Hardy asked.

Benched, he was told, then reminded again Armstead never has played a down in a regular-season game.

"Neither did I when I blocked that punt and caused that fumble," said Hardy, remembering two plays he made in the 2010 opener against the New York Giants of his rookie season. "So I'm not going to look too much into that one."

Asked if Armstead's inexperience gave him an advantage, Hardy didn't blink.

"I feel I've got an advantage going against everybody in the NFL," he said. "That's my personal opinion, though."

As the education on Armstead continued, Hardy acknowledged he hadn't heard of him but he was aware of Armstead's college, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, because "I'm from Memphis."

When he heard Armstead was a third-round pick, Hardy responded as one might expect from a player who always takes the underdog role.

"Geez, he got drafted higher than I did," said Hardy, a sixth-round pick. "Got a good game, I guess. Right? A little competition. It'll be exciting."

Hardy might not be familiar with his competition, which he'll need to take advantage of for Carolina to avenge a 31-13 loss to the Saints (10-4) two weeks ago, but the Panthers do.

They interviewed him before this year's draft. As far as coach Ron Rivera could remember, they brought the player who ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.71 seconds) for an offensive lineman in NFL Scouting Combine history to Charlotte for a more thorough look.

In other words, the staff already had plenty of tape of Armstead from college to study, and staff members were gathering preseason film to add to that.

Was Rivera surprised by the move this late in the season with the NFC South title and first-round playoff bye at stake? Not really.

"The head coach has got to do what's right and best for his team," he said. "It's a very big game. We know that. For [Saints coach Sean Payton] to do what he did, there's a reason why, whether it's to send a message to somebody or individual player or a group or anything like that.

"But it's a big game, and we know what's at stake."

For the Panthers (10-4), that means taking advantage of anything they can to get pressure on quarterback Drew Brees with the front four. They didn't do that two weeks ago and Brees blistered the league's second-ranked defense for 313 yards passing and four touchdowns.

Hardy, going against former left tackle Charles Brown, was credited with only one tackle. The player who leads Carolina in quarterback pressures with 33 and is second in sacks with eight didn't get a hit on Brees.

"Didn't hit him?" Hardy said. "Way? I didn't hit him one time? That's a long day right there."

Again, that has to change. The Panthers slowed Brees somewhat in the second half by using more blitz packages than normal. But for most of the season that pressure has begun from the front four, allowing linebackers to drop back in coverage to help the secondary.

They have to figure a way to do that on Sunday, and Armstead might be the place to start.

"If you don't harass him, he's going to kill you," Rivera said of Brees. "He's going to get after you, and that's what he did. We've got to be better in every facet of our defense if we expect to have success."

And that's regardless of who the Saints start at left tackle.