Every now and then, since early February and continuing this weekend in Spartanburg, someone will bring up his Super Bowl performance to Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy.
Three sacks on future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. An interception of him, too. A forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Ealy is the only player in the history of the league with those stats in a single Super Bowl.
“No, it didn’t open up my eyes,” Ealy said Saturday at Wofford College. “It opened up you guys’ eyes. I’ve always had faith in myself.”
Speaking after the third day of practice and first of camp in pads, Ealy said he is past the Super Bowl and looking forward to getting better in the preseason.
But such a historic performance is talked about nearly six months later even though the Panthers didn’t beat the Broncos.
“I’m capitalizing off of it, of course,” Ealy said. “But I’m taking every day to get better and to get ready for the season.”
This will be the second straight season where Ealy comes out of training camp as a starting defensive end, but his first as an established starter. This time last year, no one seemed to want to win the starting position opposite Charles Johnson.
With Greg Hardy no longer on the team, the job was up for grabs. Ealy had a slow start to camp but eventually won the job in the final week in Spartanburg. The rotation got shuffled late in the season and Ealy came off the bench, but his coming-out party at the Super Bowl confirmed his starting spot in 2016.
“That’s due credit to my teammates and coaches putting me in the best position possible,” Ealy said. “Everybody is doing their jobs for me to be able to make a play.”
A better understanding
Ealy is understanding the nuances of the game better in his third season. In his first year out of Missouri, Ealy tried to coast on his abilities that helped him be on the All-SEC first team.
That didn’t exactly work all the time in the NFL.
“I came into this league just trying to use my skills and I got four sacks my first year,” Ealy said. “Last year I got five. This year I’m really emphasizing the little things.”
The biggest little thing is getting to the quarterback faster. Plays are affected and money is made when defensive ends can rush the passer, and that’s Ealy’s main goal this preseason.
He changed his diet midway through last season, and Saturday he joked he probably needed a salad more than a double cheeseburger. Ealy is listed at 275, which would make him heavier than most speed rushers in the NFL who stick in the 260s.
“Speed on the way to the quarterback,” Ealy said. “That will open up other doors for me. And just relying on my other teammates to be there also.”
No numbers attached
Ealy speaks directly. He means what he says and it’s possible that he’s never smiled in an interview in his three seasons in Carolina.
But that also means that he doesn’t make proclamations he can’t back up. Asked if he had a sack goal this season, Ealy said he did not.
Could he reach the double digits?
“I’ll let you see in the season,” he said. “I’m not going to say that.”
But if he picks up where he left off in the Super Bowl, it’s a good prediction.
“My coaches already knew that and were waiting on me to have a game like that, and it just happened to be the Super Bowl,” Ealy said. “And now I’m looking forward to it being each game we play in.”