If Johnson can't go, 'next man up' ready

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There is no arguing that end Charles Johnson is a valuable member of the Carolina Panthers' defensive front. He leads the team in sacks with 8.5, and the defense is allowing 1.5 yards more per play with him not on the field.

So if the sprained right knee Johnson suffered in the third quarter of Monday night's win against New England keeps him out of Sunday's game against Miami -- which it is looking like will be the case -- it will be a loss.

But it shouldn't be game-changing.

One of the strengths of the Panthers (7-3) has been the overused "next man up'' cliché. When a player has missed time with an injury or been replaced because of poor play, there hasn't been a significant drop-off in performance.

In some cases, performance has improved.

For example:

  • Veteran tackle Dwan Edwards suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2 that sidelined him for five games. With veteran Colin Jones and rookie Kawann Short, the defense had seven sacks and a shutout in the next game.

  • Starting free safety Charles Godfrey suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 2. Strong safety Mike Mitchell moved over to free and has become the leader of the secondary, playing to a Pro Bowl level. Rookie Robert Lester went from the practice squad to the starting lineup. He had an interception in each of his first two games.

  • Weakside linebacker Jon Beason was traded to the New York Giants after three games. Chase Blackburn came in and solidified a position where the team was giving up big plays.

  • Blackburn suffered a foot injury at San Francisco. Rookie A.J. Klein played so well the rest of that game and against the Patriots that there's a chance he'll remain the starter when Blackburn returns.

So there is no panic on the league's No. 3 defense that Johnson might be out.

"Charles is a great player," middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "Don't get me wrong, he's great at rushing the passer. But one thing we have, especially on the defensive line ... I've noticed no matter who the front four is, they've done a great job."

Coach Ron Rivera says whoever has the best week of practice between Mario Addison, Frank Alexander, and Wes Horton will start at left end if Johnson can't go. But that doesn't mean you won't see other players there as well.

"I'm telling you, man, we're all the same player," right end Greg Hardy said. "If we need to put Dwan out there at end, he can go out there. We put a tackle out there against Atlanta when me and [Johnson] went out.

"Everybody can do the same job."

Hardy is the best example. He's played everywhere from end to nose tackle.

"It's the way we've been taught, and things have been instilled in us over the two or three years that Coach Rivera has been here," Hardy said. "It's finally hitting home with everybody. Everyone is just buying in."

The coaches prepare for these moments. They rotate Addison, Blackburn and Horton in so they are prepared to step up when times like this come up.

"Greg's one of those guys that plays all four spots," Kuechly said. "But all those guys do a good job of playing spots. A lot of that falls on [the coaches]. They're getting guys prepped and ready to go. That's what makes it effective, when you can bump guys around and play different positions."