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Charles Johnson a big part of turnaround on Panthers' defense

The celebration was dying in the visitor's locker room at the Georgia Dome on Sunday night and Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson was standing quietly in front of his locker.

Quiet is what Johnson is known for.

But about forty-five minutes earlier the eighth-year player out of Georgia was standing in front of his teammates, addressing them in a way that defensive coordinator Sean McDermott never had seen.

Johnson made it clear he wasn't satisfied with getting to the playoffs for the second straight year and fourth time in his career. He made it known in an uncharacteristically boisterous tone that he hadn't won a postseason game and he wanted to badly.

"I don't know if three or four years ago, when I first got here, if that would have taken place with Charles," McDermott said on Monday as he recalled the scene following the 34-3 victory over Atlanta. "To have players is one thing. To have leaders is another.

"And Charles' leadership has been on display the last several weeks on the field, leading by example, and also some of things I've heard him say. And yesterday was the latest example of that."

Carolina coach Ron Rivera agreed. When asked why the defense has gone from the 28th-ranked unit in the NFL to the 10th over the past few months he began with Johnson.

"We've always considered him a leader, but man, the last four weeks he's been phenomenal," Rivera said.

Statistically, this hasn't been Johnson's best season in terms of sacks and quarterback pressures that have been his forte. He has 8.5 sacks, his lowest total since 2009.

But 4.5 of those have come in the past six games when Johnson's play on the field picked up. Exactly what changed, Rivera can't say for sure, although the improvement of players around Johnson has helped.

Second-round pick Kony Ealy, for example, has a sack in each of the last three games. His maturity and improvement has allowed McDermott to utilize him at tackle and end the way he did with Greg Hardy the past few seasons.

But ultimately, it came down to Johnson stepping up.

"He's a very unique individual," Rivera said of the team's second all-time leading sack leader (62.5). "He cares a lot, but he's really guarded and lately he's been very emotional and very outspoken, which in my opinion is very uncharacteristic of him. But I'm glad he's doing it.

"You talk about guys that can back it up by what they do, that's impressive to me. He's been that way for us, especially the last four weeks."

Rivera has admitted on several occasions the defense didn't begin playing to its potential until after a 38-17 loss at Green Bay. That's when he said players moved on from the possibility of Hardy returning from the commissioner's exempt list.

Johnson was one of those that benefited most from Hardy, who is awaiting a 2015 trial on his domestic violence case. With the 2013 sack leader on the opposite side, it was tough for defenses to match up.

Not having him has been an adjustment.

"I do think there was a part of us that said, 'Guys, we've got to get past it. We've got to move on,' " Rivera said. "And it's hard because he was such an integral part of what we had planned for going into this year and what he was for us last year.

"But I think it's also been part of what's helped with Charles now, is knowing that, 'Hey, I'm the guy.' More so than, 'Hey, I'm sharing this with the other guy.' I'm excited about who he is."

Johnson is driven, perhaps more than any point of his NFL career that began in 2007 when the Panthers selected him in the third round.

You can hear the passion in his voice as he talked about what the Panthers (7-8-1) have to improve on to get him that elusive playoff win.

"If guys come together like they did today, we can do anything," Johnson said.

Johnson always has set the bar high for his teammates with his work ethic. He's always one of the first to arrive at the stadium and one of the last to leave. He's always working out on Tuesdays, typically a day off for players.

Now he's setting the bar high with his words as well.

"I just went through and talked about it to his teammates about guys playing and guys playing well and doing their job," Rivera said. "He has stepped up and raised his game to a whole new level."