Niners' Joe Staley Ready to Tackle Big Challenge

Panthers' right defensive end Greg Hardy, "The Kraken," has 15 sacks this season as the leader of Panthers' talented front four

Carolina Panthers’ right defensive end Greg Hardy was a bonafide Pro Bowler this season and was No. 2 in the NFL with 15 sacks.

Of course, that was far short of the 50 he predicted before the season.

“Still have some games left, buddy,” he told a reporter this week, when reminded of his playful prognostication.

But if Hardy is going to get a boatload of sacks this Sunday in the Panthers’ divisional-round playoff game against the visiting San Francisco 49ers, he’s going to have to get them against Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley – not an easy task. He’s also battling a bit of trouble with asthma, but says it’s not a big deal.

In the 49ers-Panthers meeting earlier this season, a 10-9 decision in Carolina’s favor, Hardy was able to get plenty of pressure on San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick – who was sacked six times – but wasn’t in on any of those six.

It will be one of the key matchups in Sunday’s rematch, Hardy vs. Staley, two terrific linemen going head-to-head on almost every snap.

Hardy’s nickname is “The Kraken,” after a mythical monster from the “Harry Potter” books. The 6-foot-4, 290-pounder from the University of Mississippi is a big, strong, athletic pass rusher who’s also strong against the run. He’s the anchor of a Panthers’ front seven that 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh this week called the best in the NFL.

In his last game, against the Atlanta Falcons, Hardy had a franchise-record four sacks.

His coaches and teammates say Hardy goes all out on every play, in both games and practice.

“Hardy is a big, athletic guy, real slippery,” Staley told this week. “When it seems like he’s getting blocked, he gets off blocks and makes plays. He’s pretty unique.”

Staley’s duel with Hardy will be part of the larger battle between the 49ers’ outstanding offensive line and the Panthers’ strong front four of ends Hardy and Charles Johnson and tackles Colin Cole and rookie standout Star Lotulelei. Staley said the Panthers’ front four is adept at stunting and also great on straight, one-on-one bull rushes.

Yet Staley is used to meeting big challenges. The 6-foot-5, 315-pounder is a three-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler who also is extremely athletic. The former college tight end was a high school track star in Michigan as a sprinter. He’s eager for the matchup.

“He’s a fiery guy,” Staley said of Hardy. “I got a sense of his personality. He’s a little wild, which is fun. It’s fun to go against a guy like that. It brings out the competitive side.”

The 49ers offense has come a long way since that 10-9 loss to the Panthers in early November. The San Francisco line wasn’t protecting Kaepernick or opening holes for Frank Gore. That gives Staley and his linemates something to shoot for in Sunday’s Round 2.

“Obviously, too many sacks in that game,” Staley told the Charlotte Observer this week. “I think we’ve gotten a lot of those issues ironed out up front. They’re a very talented defensive front. Each has a unique strength and they’re good at playing to those strengths. It was a weird game. Couldn’t convert on third downs. Lot to improve on.”

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