CHARLOTTE, N.C. – As the NFL’s leading tackler as a rookie, Luke Kuechly had hype coming into the 2013 preseason. What’s transpired after one half of work against the Baltimore Ravens has thrust him to another level with comparisons to Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher being thrown around.
Could he be the NFL’s next great linebacker?
It was basically The Kuechly Show for the entire first half of Thursday’s meeting with the defending Super Bowl champs. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Boston College product started it off by shooting the gap and punching the ball out of running back Bernard Pierce’s grasp, which his fellow Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis fell on for a touchdown. Then, Kuechly knocked out the ball out from receiver Aaron Mellette few plays later, causing an interception that was nullified by a questionable penalty call on Kuechly. It didn’t matter, though — two plays later he intercepted a Joe Flacco pass to get the ball right back.
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There’s really nothing he can’t do.
“When it comes to linebackers, I’m a hard critic and you have to be able to do everything. A lot of the bigger [name linebackers] are more stout against the run but suspect in the passing game, but Luke’s complete,” former Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason said. “I think he can run, great in the passing game, stout against the run and he’s very instinctive. I think he has all the intangibles to be as good as anybody.”
His head coach, a former linebacker himself, isn’t ready to crown him as a once-a-decade linebacker just yet, but admits the hype at this point is warranted.
“Well, I think Luke is establishing who he is as a football player. People want to compare him but lets let the young man play his second season, and then we’ll start talking about him [up there],” coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s most certainly a dynamic football player and he’s a heck of a person. I’m pretty excited for him and the notoriety he’s getting and deservedly so.”
The Panthers’ defense took a major step forward last season when Kuechly moved to the middle five games in. It made another step forward this preseason in the takeaways department and Kuechly has (again) been a big reason why.
In 2012, the Panthers had four defensive touchdowns. They’ve already scored four in three preseason games. A year ago, a shaky defensive backfield only tallied 11 interceptions (23rd in the league). In three preseason games, Carolina’s defense has seven INTs.
“We want to be an attack-oriented defense and if we do that, we know we’re going to get those turnovers, sack, fumbles, interceptions, stripped balls — all that stuff should happen,” Beason said. “It’s something the coaches harp on out here and it’s kind of carried over into the game.”
Part of it is a greater continuity and understanding of the system after being together for another year, according to Rivera. The additions of veterans Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore — both of whom had pick-sixes against the Ravens — in the backfield and a pair of rookie defensive tackles (Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short) in the middle hasn’t hurt either.
But it’s the addition of Beason that could take this defense the highest. The Panthers finished as a top-10 defense a season ago but did so without Beason, who was injured in Week 5. He’s back after undergoing microfracture knee surgery last year and saw his first game action against the Ravens (14 snaps).
The knee felt great, Beason said, but it is still a work in progress.
“He brings fire, that extra leadership to the table,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “Just another star on our defensive unit and just being a vocal leader.”
Rivera sounded nearly giddy when talking about the thought of being able to line up Thomas Davis, Kuechly and Beason all together. Coming back from microsurgery takes time — it’s partly the reason Beason lobbied for more snaps Thursday and wants to play in the final preseason game — but Rivera said he’s seen flashes of the player from two years ago. Beason will man the starting weakside linebacker slot but will also likely back up Kuechly at middle linebacker with veteran Chase Blackburn possessing the versatility to back up both the weakside and strongside positions. It’s the problem every coach hopes for: trying to figure out how to get all the talent they have enough reps.
Regardless, Rivera knows what he’s got when Beason is healthy.
“It’s an energy Jon has. His energy level is way up there,” Rivera said of what Beason’s brought. “He’s very frenetic when he’s moving around and he’s physical, he really is. Not that we didn’t have that out there but when you add another guy out there with his athleticism and physicality, it just becomes more exciting.”
For the first two years of Cam Newton’s time in Charlotte, the Panthers identity was on offense. That’s changed this year. The front seven is the strength of the football team and it’s not lost on them what’s worked this preseason.
“It’s just a collective effort to get to the ball,” Beason said. “Anytime you’re swarming, bad things happen for the opposing offenses.”