Defensive end Kony Ealy said it felt like a weight had been lifted off him Sunday after he recorded his first sack at the season’s midway point.
Carolina Panthers coaches tried to lift the weight of expectations on the third-year player by deciding during the bye week to relegate Ealy to a reserve role.
In the two games since, Ealy has seen a drop in his playing time but an uptick in his production.
“I think it takes a little bit of the pressure, the expectations off of him. I think he comes off the bench a little more fresh,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Monday. “I do know that he wants to be a starter. He’s working to be a starter. He’s doing everything he can.
“He’s done some extra things in the last couple of weeks since we made the decision. I think it’s been good for him.”
Wes Horton, a run-stuffer who re-signed with Carolina on Oct. 14, started against Arizona and Los Angeles as defensive coordinator Sean McDermott went to more of a rotation at end.
Ealy responded with a game-sealing interception in a 30-20 victory over Arizona before coming up with three tackles and his elusive first sack Sunday in the 13-10 victory at L.A.
Ealy’s sack of Case Keenum came in the final minute after the Rams had driven to the Carolina 6. Though the Rams scored on the next play, the moment was not lost on Ealy.
“Being out there just grinding away and obviously the work paid off. It’s a weight lifted off my shoulders,” Ealy said. “Now I just have to go get the next one and the next one and the next one after that.”
Ealy entered his third season coming off an impressive performance in Super Bowl 50. The former second-round pick from Missouri sacked Peyton Manning three times and intercepted the future Hall of Famer on an athletic, one-handed play.
The bar had been raised for a player who has never had more than one sack in a regular-season game.
Rivera said last month coaches might have put too much on Ealy’s plate, and he thinks getting the sack Sunday will help Ealy relax and just play.
“Getting off the schneid I think is huge because of the expectations. People look at guys (and say), ‘Oh, he should be getting this, he should be getting that,’” Rivera said. “Not necessarily. Sometimes you start developing a little bit of a reputation and the other team pays a little more attention to you.”