At various junctures this season, 49ers coaches and players have credited a given week’s opponent as having the best defensive front “we’ve seen.”
As the 2013 schedule wore on, this superlative increasingly gained significance.
Now, for all intents and purposes, it’s Week 19, and the phrase has been employed yet again but not without reason.
“They are the most talented front-seven that we have played,” Jim Harbaugh, not typically inclined to make comparisons, said of the Carolina defense on Wednesday. “That is a great share of what makes them so affective, rushing the quarterback and stopping the run.”
“And they all present a unique challenge as far as what their strengths are,” Staley added, “and playing to their strengths.”
Funny because Greg Hardy's strength is his... strength.
The Staley-versus-Hardy matchup will be one key to the 49ers NFC Divisional playoff game rematch with the Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte. After all, quarterback
Despite the fact that the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Hardy, Carolina’s right defense end, didn’t record one of those six takedowns two months ago, he has gained as much attention for his on-the-field production as for his off-the-field personality in the time since.
Hardy, a fourth-year pro, racked up a career-high 15 sacks this season, 10 of them after facing Staley for the first time in November.
“Hardy is big, athetic guy, real slippery," Staley said. "When it seems like he's getting blocked, he gets off blocks and makes plays... He's pretty unique."
Then there was Hardy announcing himself as "The Kraken" during a "Sunday Night Football" game in December, a nickname or alter ago referencing a mythical sea monster that has since stuck.
“He’s one a kind, that’s for sure,” said linebacker teammate Luke Kuechly, who recorded 1.5 sacks of Kaepernick last time around, “but he comes in and works hard."
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Hardy is one his all-effort, all-the-time players in practice.
"His personality and his play mimic each other," Rivera said. "He's a dynamic young man who has a heck of an attitude... He's a free spirit.
"You try to get his mood, see where he is and you're try to see if you're talking to Greg or if you're talking to 'The Kraken.'"
The assignment of silencing Hardy falls to Staley for a second time.
Of the NFC South champs' four lineman, a group that comprises defensive tackles Colin Cole and Star Lotulelei and end Charles Johnson, Staley said each has strong pass-rushing tactics and can collaborate on affective two- and three-man stunts.
Hardy stands out from his teammates in more than one way.
"He's a fiery guy," Staley said. "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."
Told that Hardy, a first-time Pro Bowler, was quoted as saying he "dominated breakfast" and will "dominate everything" following his four-sack Week 17 performance, Staley smiled.
"He must have had," Staley said, "a heck of a breakfast."
- READ: Beat Writer Breakdown on SF-CAR
Panthers Expect Improved Kaepernick
Wild Card wrap, Divisional Preview in Playoffs Report
Crabtree's 2013 Season in Shots
- READ: Top Defenses to Meet in Carolina
- READ: Reviewing Teams' Week 10 Matchup at 'Stick
- VIEW: NFC Divisional Round Infographic