A dominant, game-changing performance by an edge rusher won Super Bowl 50 for the Denver Broncos and won outside linebacker Von Miller MVP honors.
Had the Panthers come away with a victory, defensive end Kony Ealy might have taken home the MVP trophy after his own dominant performance as an edge rusher.
Ealy’s three sacks and his interception of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning helped convince the Panthers to stand pat and do nothing to improve their stock of edge rushers during the offseason.
But through the first six games this season, Ealy has done next to nothing, as well.
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Ealy entered the Panthers’ bye week with as many sacks as Jared Allen, who retired in February by posting a video of him riding “off into the sunset” on horseback.
Ealy ranks among the worst edge rushers in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The analytics site rates Ealy behind Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson and third-down specialist Mario Addison, as well as Lavar Edwards, waived by the Panthers this week and claimed by Indianapolis.
For all the hand-wringing about the Panthers’ cornerbacks, that was a group that most expected to endure growing pains after general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag and added three rookies via the draft.
But the Panthers thought Ealy, their second-round pick in 2014, was ready to emerge as a consistent play-maker in his third NFL season.
Not so much.
“Right now for a six-game stretch, yeah, you’d probably like to see a little bit more production out of him,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this week. “But it’s not like he’s not trying. It’s tough because the way people approach us now.”
Rivera was referring to the chip blocks the Panthers’ defensive ends get from backs and tight ends before beginning their pass routes.
But Ealy dismissed the chips as “nothing new.”
A slow starter
Slow starts also are nothing new for Ealy, who hasn’t recorded a sack during the first six games of any of his three seasons.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that Ealy has been streaky with his sacks. He had a three-game stretch with at least one sack in every game as a rookie, and a five-game stretch last season.
Rivera wondered aloud whether coaches put too much on Ealy, who scoffed at the notion.
“That ain’t got nothing to do with it. I’m a professional athlete,” he said. “My teammates and my coaches have faith in me, the same way I do – vice versa. I’m going to get my job done.”
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was asked whether the Panthers put too much on Ealy’s plate.
“This is his third season. I would hope that’s not the case,” McDermott said. “I know Kony takes a lot of pride in what he does and how he approaches the game. I have a lot of confidence in Kony and I’m looking for him to continue to grow just like some of these other young players.”
A struggle in general
It’s not like Ealy is the only pass rusher who’s struggling.
Defensive tackle Kawann Short earned his first Pro Bowl berth and asked to be paid as one of the league’s top interior linemen after his 11-sack breakout last season. Short has just one sack this season, and seemingly hurts his market value each week he goes without high-impact plays.
Johnson went the first five games without a sack before splitting one last week against the Saints’ Drew Brees. But Johnson, who came back to Carolina on a one-year, “prove-it” deal, at least is getting hits and pressures on the quarterback.
Ealy has yet to get untracked after a Super Bowl showing that raised his profile around the league.
“My performance last year did raise a lot of expectations,” Ealy said. “Totally different team. We’ve got totally different new faces. So we’ve just got to jell together, work together and we’ve got to get this whole thing done on defense together.”
Actually, the Panthers’ team that went 15-1 in 2015 returned virtually intact. The only newcomers were Ealy, who replaced Allen, and the three new starters in the secondary who took over for Norman, retired corner Charles Tillman and strong safety Roman Harper.
Rivera says his biggest disappointment through a 1-5 start has been the lack of a pass rush from the front four. The Panthers are averaging two sacks a game and are on pace for their fewest in Rivera’s six seasons.
There’s a chance the Panthers could activate defensive end Ryan Delaire from injured reserve in a few weeks. But Delaire – like Addison – is a pure speed rusher who needs a second move.
Barring a trade, the Panthers remain where they started the season – hopeful that Ealy wasn’t a Super Bowl 50 flash in the pan.
“That’s one of the things we’re hoping – to get him on a hot streak,” Rivera said. “Last year he had (five) weeks in a row with a sack. He had three weeks in a row where he had a sack/caused fumble. You get into the Super Bowl and playoffs (and) play the way he did. We have to find those answers.”
Ealy says the answer is to stay at it. He’s confident the quarterback pressures will come.
“I understand it’s a process. You have to take time. It goes through play in, play out,” he said. “It’s not about getting sacks all the time. It’s about pressures. It’s about doing what the defensive calls (are). ... We’re just going to keep working and our pass rush will come alive.”