Carolina Panthers

Frustrated Ron Rivera looking for a defensive end to step up

Carolina Panthers’ Frank Alexander among players trying to earn starting job at defensive end.
Carolina Panthers’ Frank Alexander among players trying to earn starting job at defensive end. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has made it clear he’s looking for a defensive end to seize the starting job formerly held by Greg Hardy.

The ends’ collective performance in Friday’s exhibition opener at Buffalo is not what he had in mind.

With Charles Johnson still out with a calf injury, Rivera gave a couple of young, lightly regarded players a shot Monday when Rakim Cox and Arthur Miley alternated series with the first-team defense.

Rivera said it was a reward for Cox and Miley for their good fourth-quarter work against the Bills more than an indictment of Mario Addison, Frank Alexander and Wes Horton, all of whom had their reps cut significantly Monday.

Alexander, who appeared to have a slight edge for the spot opposite Johnson before the game at Buffalo, worked with the third team Monday.

“A whole bunch of guys moved all over the place and worked with different groups,” Rivera said.

Still, it was a bit of a jarring sight for a team in need of another pass-rusher after Hardy’s departure to Dallas.

But Rivera wasn’t ready to sound the alarm after one exhibition.

“We just finished our second week going into our third. We had a group of guys that we like. Who knows? Maybe one of these young guys will be the answer,” Rivera said. “But we’re going to find out. We’re most certainly going to create opportunities and give guys opportunities who earned it.”

With Johnson sidelined with a strained right calf, Alexander and Kony Ealy were the starting ends against the Bills.

The two combined for 67 snaps -- 34 for Ealy, 33 for Alexander – and managed to leave the game without making a single tackle or sack.

Ealy, the second-round pick from Missouri in 2014, did not record a defensive statistic. Alexander, suspended 14 games last season after multiple violations of the league’s substance abuse policy, finished with one quarterback pressure.

The other players competing for Hardy’s old spot didn’t exactly give the Bills quarterbacks nightmares, either. Horton had two tackles in 22 snaps, while Addison assisted on a tackle while in for 20 plays.

“We didn’t get as much sack production as we wanted to get,” Alexander said before Monday’s practice at Wofford. “But that’s why you’ve got three more games to try to work your way up to Week 1.”

Ealy also seemed to understand Rivera’s frustrations.

“With this being our first game back, you expect stuff like that,” Ealy said. “But I know coach had a different mindset, especially for the defense. Overall, we’ve just got to do a better job.”

With the Panthers generating no semblance of a pass rush, Buffalo starter Matt Cassel stood in the pocket to complete 7-of-8 passes before giving way to Tyrod Taylor.

Taylor spent most of the second quarter running through and around the Panthers’ defense. Taylor, the former Virginia Tech quarterback, had six carries for 47 yards and twice found running lanes on the edge when Ealy lost containment.

Ealy said he needed to improve his footwork and take better angles “instead of trying to chase a guy with that magnitude of speed.”

Panthers coaches hoped Ealy would build off his strong finish to his rookie season, when he had a sack in each of the final three regular-season games. And he still might.

Ealy (6-4, 275) also has been getting reps at defensive tackles in obvious passing situations, and says he reported to camp in good shape. Some in the Panthers organization have pointed out Hardy did not break out until his third season in 2012, when he finished with 11 sacks after combining for seven sacks his first two years.

But Hardy’s explosive speed and play-making abilities were evident from the moment he arrived in Charlotte as a sixth-round pick whose draft stock dropped because of character concerns. Hardy blocked a punt for a safety and forced a fumble in his first NFL game, and covered punts as a gunner during his rookie year.

Ealy might not have Hardy’s speed, but he’s not conceding anything.

“I have the physical traits; I know that,” Ealy said. “Coach has imbedded that in us as a D-line as far as what we’re supposed to do. It’s all about going out and doing it.”

Alexander was Rivera’s choice as camp MVP last season, but ended up missing most of the season because of the failed drug tests. Alexander, in the last year of his rookie contract, says he has given up marijuana and is trying to make the most of what might be his final opportunity with the Panthers.

He said he would not let one exhibition define his preseason.

“I’m disappointed in my play as well. I wanted to play better and I will get better,” he said. “I’m going to come to work everyday to get better.”

It might be the Panthers are better off using the committee approach they employed last season when Hardy sat out the final 15 games because of the fallout from his domestic violence arrest.

The trio of Addison, Ealy and Horton teamed for 13.5 sacks in 2014, led by Addison’s 6.5 in a part-time role.

But Ealy still believes he can be the guy.

He laughed Monday when asked if he thinks Rivera is harder on him than the other ends.

“No, not at all,” he said. “I know what he expects out of me as a player.”

And that is?

“To be a dominant end,” Ealy said. “Period.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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