The coach could already see the change coming. But he absolutely knew Kony Ealy was starting to get it one play in the Carolina Panthers’ second preseason game of 2015.
In the days prior to the game — an Aug. 22 matchup against Miami — Ealy, a second-year defensive end from Missouri, had been coached on reading false keys. Or to put it simply, when the Dolphins lined up in certain personnel packages, it was up to him to read the lineman he was up against and decide whether or not rush the passer or play the run.
On the fourth play of the game, Ealy read his key correctly, and the information he got told him to rush the quarterback. So he did, quickly, and made the play, forcing a strip-sack. Carolina defensive line coach Eric Washington beamed.
“There was one particular key that we were focused on as a position group,” Washington said. “From that point on, you just saw his confidence really, really start to grow and blossom.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
In the past, Washington said Ealy wouldn’t have been as disciplined or as focused on all the preparation that led up to that particular moment.
“From a focus standpoint, from a discipline standpoint, it’s just a different game (than college),” Washington said. “With his technique and his assignment, he has specific things he has to make sure he’s focused on, and at the same time, he’s got to feel some of the things that are going on around him.
“He’s able to do that a lot better this year as opposed to last year.”
Ealy, a second-round pick of the Panthers in 2014, has improved on a rookie season in which he tallied 12 tackles and four sacks in 15 games. This year, he’s recorded nearly three times as many tackles — 32 — while increasing his sack total to five and improving his understanding of the finer details of defense.
“Last year, I kind of used to run around like a chicken with his head cut off, if you will,” Ealy said. “I didn’t get it all the way. I thought it was all about me in that moment.”
Ealy credits his fellow defensive linemen like starters Jared Allen, Charles Johnson and Kawann Short for helping him realize the importance of embracing the mental side of the game.
“They helped me changed my attitude just by leading by example, kind of keeping me sane.” Ealy said. “They said you’ve got to understand, it’s not college anymore — you can’t overpower everybody. You’ve got to lose a little more technique to get around them.”
Washington isn’t surprised that Ealy — who started the Panthers’ 49-15 win over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game due to an injury to Allen — is living up to his potential. He visited Ealy at Missouri leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft and worked him out, and he liked the size, the power and the ability to play at the point of attack as a run defender.
And since Ealy recorded 9 1/2 sacks in 2013, his redshirt junior season, the Panthers knew he had pass-rush ability too, giving all the tools to be a good defensive end in their 4-3 scheme.
“He had the traits, he had some of the skills that you’re looking for, but there was also a lot of rawness in his game,” Washington said. “He knew we’d have to work with him and develop him a little bit.”
The process of watching Ealy develop over the last few years has been very gratifying for Washington.
“It’s just really cool to see — it’s like watching your own son or somebody you’re very, very close to continue to grow and develop,” Washington said.
Ealy has plenty to play for on Sunday, when the Panthers take on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Not only is he supporting his sister, who was born with chromosomal damage that severely impaired her ability to speak and walk, he also has a 2-month-old daughter.
“It makes me realize it’s not about me anymore,” Ealy said.
But part of him also wants to play well to show the Panthers that they not only made a good decision by drafting him, they also made a good choice to let earn legitimate playing time on one of the league’s best defenses.
“For the organization to have faith in me like that ... it speaks volumes, man,” Ealy said. “It just shows how far I’ve gone and how far I’m going to go. I’m still growing as a player, still growing as a human being. But at the end of the day, there’s no organization I’d rather be in.”