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Panthers’ Ron Rivera: Kony Ealy must realize potential

Jets defensive end had a brilliant performance for Carolina in Super Bowl 50.

Jets defensive end Kony Ealy puts pressure on

Jets defensive end Kony Ealy puts pressure on Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Brian Blanco

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday that Jets defensive end Kony Ealy, one of his former players, needs to do more growing on the field. Ealy will attempt to prove Rivera wrong Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

Ealy, a 2014 second-round pick, had three mostly unfulfilled years with the Panthers before he was traded to the Patriots this summer for a second-rounder. After a few months, Ealy was cut, unable to find a rhythm quickly enough in the Pats’ 3-4 scheme. The Jets claimed him off waivers Aug. 27 and he’s become a productive player.

“I think the young man still has some room to grow,” Rivera said in a conference call. “I think he showed what his potential could be when he played in Super Bowl 50 for us and did a heck of a job.”

Ealy dismissed Rivera’s comments.

“That’s his personal opinion,” Ealy said. “I’ve moved on as far as that. I’m focused on the team I’m playing with and the guys I’m out here playing with. And focused on trying to get this ‘W’ on Sunday.”

Rivera’s remarks were based on wanting more from Ealy. After not starting a game for Carolina as a rookie, Ealy started nine of 16 games in 2015, and in Super Bowl 50 he had the best game of his career in a 24-10 loss to the Broncos, with three sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. That performance raised expectations for 2016, but Ealy started only six games and compiled five sacks.

This season, Ealy has been productive as a backup defensive end with 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, seven quarterback hits and a team-leading nine pass breakups. He’s the first lineman since 1994 to lead the Jets in passes defended after 11 weeks.

“Luck and skill, you got to be in the right place to do it,” Todd Bowles said. “Some people have that knack to do that type of thing. Some guys pat down passes all the time and some guys don’t pat down any passes. It doesn’t mean you’re any less effective, but he has a feel for it.”

The solid performances Ealy is giving the Jets just didn’t happen consistently enough with the Panthers.

“I think Kony is one of those guys, he flashes his ability, and when he flashes it, he’s tough to block,” Rivera said. “He does a lot of good things, I think he’s a guy who continues to develop and grow, and when he gets there he can be a really good player in this league.”

Ealy would contend he’s already there, and Rivera’s comments seemed to sting. One of the biggest adjustments he needed to make was learning the Jets’ scheme. Ealy is asked to react quicker after the ball is snapped, and the results have been positive.

“I felt like I’ve grown as a player,” he said. “Knowing the scheme better, it allows me not to think as much as I used to.”

After Wednesday’s practice, Ealy downplayed facing his former team. He showed little emotion during his chat with reporters, and afterward he went back to playing Go Fish with teammates. However, in a television interview Tuesday, Ealy said facing the Panthers was important.

“I’ve got a lot of friends I played with over there and a lot of coaches,” Ealy told the NFL Network. “It’s going to mean more to me playing in that game, being fired up and just really doing what I need to do for my team. But also, getting a little revenge, I guess you could say.”

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