CHARLOTTE – "We can be as great as we want to be," defensive end Kony Ealy said.
Ealy was talking about the capability of his Carolina Panthers team, but he could have been talking about himself.
Of late, he's been pretty great.
"He's done some nice things," head coach Ron Rivera said. "He's understanding what it takes to be a pro, and he's still learning."
Ealy recorded a sack in each of the Panthers' last two games after not recording any while concentrating on the "dirty work" over the first six games. He still managed 10 quarterback pressures through six games, but he now has six over the last two games.
A second-round draft pick in 2014 out of Missouri, where he was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2013, Ealy also started slow as a rookie.
"I think he came in a little overconfident about his abilities, and it can be a little bit of an awakening for some young guys, especially for a guy like him who had a lot of success in college and then all of a sudden has the realization of how hard it is," Rivera said. "Last year, the first couple of weeks he wasn't active, but as he progressed, you see how much more mature he is, how much more involved in practice he is. In all honesty, last year when he came out with the show team, you probably got 75 percent effort and you'd have to goad him into 100 percent. Now there's no goading.
"He holds himself accountable, gets frustrated in himself when he makes mistakes. Those are all good indications that he's beginning to understand and recognize the importance of not just what you do on the field but also preparation. He's done a nice job. There is more maturity there."
Added defensive coordinator Sean McDermott: "Proud of the way he's worked, and it hasn't been easy. He's persevered."
PERFECTING PRACTICE: Rivera is working to make sure his players are in good physical condition down the stretch of the season, but he doesn't want to sacrifice their mental preparedness.
"If we can take a little load off the players, that's what we have to do because the big thing is how you are at the end of the season," Rivera said. "But the fine line is you don't want to take away teaching opportunities for the coaches and learning opportunities for the players."
With that in mind, Rivera has tweaked the practice schedule each of the past two weeks. Wednesday typically is the most physically demanding day of the practice week, but Rivera has now changed things up to focus on the mental aspects of the game on Wednesdays. That allows him to rest more players coming off the previous week's game but also keep those players more involved.
"The big reason is to get as many of those guys on the practice field as possible. Even though it's limited participation, they're out there," Rivers said. "We've toned things down and have changed things around so that they get to be out there for the new installations. It has worked pretty well.
"We have to look at ways to stay fresh to try to make sure you're trending upwards as opposed to either plateauing or trending down. We've got to be smart about this. We've been fortunate the last few years that we've been able to do some good things in December, and we want to keep that going."
KUECHLY AMONG BENEFICIARIES: Linebacker Luke Keuchly was among those who took it easy Wednesday after rolling his ankle twice in last Sunday's game, but he returned to limited participation in practice Thursday.
"He looked good, moved well," Rivera said. "I expect him to be OK when he shows up tomorrow and gets his treatment. He should be ready to roll after Friday's practice."
Kuechly confirmed that he'd be "ready to go" against the Tennessee Titans.
"It feels great," he added.
Guard Andrew Norwell, who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury, was the only Panther not to practice in some capacity Thursday. Running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle) was limited for the second straight day, the first time he's missed practice since Week 4.
"Jonathan is fine," Rivera said. "It's a little nagging, so we're just trying to be smart."
View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game versus the Titans.