SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kony Ealy wrapped his arms around Peyton Manning’s right leg to pull down the Denver quarterback.
He tugged Manning by the back of his jersey to put him on the turf another time, and he came from behind to shake up the Broncos offense, too.
The unheralded second-year defensive end even caught Manning by complete surprise — not to mention most everybody else in Levi’s Stadium — when he made a snazzy, one-handed grab to secure a second-quarter interception with Denver driving at the Carolina 20. Then Ealy scrambled 19 yards on the return.
“I just did my job. I knew my job, my angle, I knew which receiver I had. I know Peyton, he likes to throw in those short little windows,” Ealy said. “I just got my head back real quick and the ball just happened to be there, slow motion. I caught it.”
Ealy shined and set the tone on a day Cam Newton and the Carolina offense struggled to make the plays that carried the NFC champion Panthers this far, adding three sacks and a forced fumble to his impressive day in a 24-10 Super Bowl loss Sunday.
Ealy was the first player with three sacks in a Super Bowl since Darnell Dockett in 2009 for Arizona.
“He played amazing,” defensive lineman Jared Allen said. “He played a phenomenal game.”
On one sequence early in the fourth quarter, Ealy did it all. With Manning in the shotgun on third-and-14 from the Panthers 41, Ealy tackled the quarterback for a 9-yard loss, stripped the ball from him to force the fumble and then the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Ealy recovered it himself.
“Their defense was stout like I thought they were,” Manning said. “They gave us fits all night.”
What a spectacular day on defense for the second-round draft pick out of Missouri two years ago.
The 24-year-old Ealy was called upon right away as a rookie as Greg Hardy was on a paid leave of absence dealing with his domestic violence case. Then Ealy gained valuable game experience starting nine games over more than the first half of the 2015 season helping fill in when Charles Johnson was on injured reserve designated for return with a hamstring injury.
“I give the credit to my defense. They were in the right place at the right time and obviously allowed me to be able to be in the right place at the right time and catch an interception,” Ealy said.
Ealy had five sacks, three forced fumbles and 32 tackles this season before his biggest NFL performance yet Sunday.
As a young player, he expects to build off it.
“My teammates allowed me to be in different situations, my athletic ability took over, my mindset listening to my coaches, everybody helping me as far as my mental growth,” Ealy said, “and it showed up tonight.”