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Panthers struggling defensively since Greg Hardy went on exempt list

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Statistics say the Carolina Panthers miss defensive end Greg Hardy.

Since Hardy was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved, the Panthers have allowed 37 or more points in three of four games. They allowed 513 yards, the second most in team history, in Sunday's 37-37 tie at Cincinnati.

In the four games since Hardy was removed from the 53-man roster Carolina has allowed an average of 34 points and 442 yards. The defense has gone from a top five ranking in the NFL to 26th.

A year ago, the Panthers gave up 15.06 points and 301.2 yards a game en route to a No. 2 ranking. If you're counting, that's about 19 points and 141 less yards per game than in these past four games.

"It would be asinine for me to sit up here and say his loss has no impact on us," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Monday. "But at the same time it is the next-man mentality. We can sit up here and exonerate me by just saying that's the reason why [the defense has struggled], but that's not the reason why.

"It comes down to basic fundamentals. And it's not the guys that replaced him that are the only ones making mistakes. There are a few other guys that need to play more disciplined."

Rivera won't use Hardy's absence as an excuse, and shouldn't. To do so would be to suggest he doesn't have confidence in the players he has.

"It would be easy to just sit here and say that, but I'm not gonna," he continued. "That would be letting a lot of people off the hook, me included. The truth of the matter is these guys are professionals and they need to play and they need to play better."

But when you remove a player that led the team in sacks last season with 15 and quarterback pressures with 38, a player who could play the run as well as rush the passer and occasionally drop into coverage, it has an impact.

Look no further than Sunday's opponent, the Green Bay Packers. When quarterback Aaron Rodgers was healthy and playing the Packers were 6-2 last season. Without him they were 2-5-1.

Hardy had the kind of impact on Carolina's defense that Rodgers has on Green Bay's offense.

Rivera said the defense is a developing unit and "this team is in flux." One thing is for certain, the Panthers (3-2-1) can't count on the defense to win games the way they did a year ago.

The unit that defined Carolina during a 12-4 2013 season is being gashed for big plays almost every week. Rivera said the gap control was excellent against Cincinnati outside of the 89-yard touchdown run by Giovani Bernard.

But even without that play the Panthers still gave up 424 total yards, about 123 more than last season's average.

Carolina gave up five or more yards on 35 of 75 plays against Cincinnati. That's 46.6 percent.

Thirty-three percent is what Rivera calls acceptable.

"Yep, way too high," he said.

The players trying to replace Hardy say they can do the job.

"Everybody just needs to let us play football, and we can get this damn thing going," rookie defensive end Kony Ealy said. "Ain't nobody got to worry about us."

When asked if there was worry, Ealy said only from outside the locker room.

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott insists the effort is there and that it's all about correcting mistakes. He won't use Hardy's absence as an excuse, either.

"Look, Greg is a phenomenal player," McDermott said. "We all know that. The thing that I have to focus on now is Greg's not here. I'm coaching the guys in that room, just like the other coaches are.

"Greg is on my mind because I hope he's doing well. My primary concern is the guys in that room and getting this defense to improve each and every day. No matter if we were the No. 1 ranked defense or whatever and we were undefeated, we've got to improve every day."

Statistically, there is plenty of room for it.