It hasn’t even been two years and they’re already talking about No. 59 as the league’s best linebacker. No. 59 is Luke Kuechly, of course. He’s the leader of the Panthers’ rejuvenated defense, one that struggled mightily last season but has come together to become stout this season. A big reason why is Kuechly, who has raised his play to another level against the run and pass, especially the latter.
While most offenses torch defenses in the middle of the field, Kuechly does the opposite. He negates throws with a blend of athleticism and instincts, two traits that every defensive coach desires in their linebacker, but few can find. It’s what makes Kuechly special. So special that others, like Tom Brady, are starting to single his play out not just before the snap, but days before the game.
“He’s a really solid player,” Brady said earlier this week. “He has great instincts. When you have that type athleticism that he has, as well as the instincts, not only in the run game but the pass game, he just really goes sideline-to-sideline takes on blocks.
There’s no doubt that Kuechly is a complete player. He’s particularly impressive in coverage, where he’s been able to run with tight ends and slot receivers as far as 25 yards downfield. Neither have had great success getting open against him. Nor have quarterbacks throwing the ball, who intend to throw only to find themselves double-clutching. They’re hesitant, and as a result, they’re sacked before they can even get the ball off of the palm of their hand. Just ask Colin Kaepernick, who looked like he was going to throw a strike in between the hashes in Week 10.
The Panthers were sitting in a two-deep shell before a snap early in the fourth quarter. Kuechly, lined up in the middle of the field as usual, was assigned the duty of running straight down the middle of the Cover 2 defense once the play began. He would fill the vacant room that the safeties created once they widened outside the numbers, essentially becoming a third safety, if you will.
Lined up in a three-point stance to the left of Kuechly was 49ers rookie tight end Vance McDonald. A towering presence at 6’4″, he could run fast (4.60 in the 40-yard dash) and get down the seam fairly quickly. He had his hands full here with Kuechly, though.
Kaepernick dropped back and faked the hand-off before setting his sights on the middle of the field, where McDonald was running inside the left hash. McDonald veered slightly inside as if he was running an angle route in an effort to make Kuechly take a false step, allowing himself to run free through the heart of the Panthers defense. That wasn’t working, though. Kuechly’s smarter than that, and certainly athletic enough to handle this type of route even if he did momentarily slow down.
When McDonald made the slight incision, Kuechly, who was dropping into coverage with his eyes on the quarterback, slowed down just a bit, but then turned outside and ran down with the tight end. Unable to throw the seam ball, Kaepernick held on a little longer and felt the outside rush. Forced to step up in the pocket, he walked right into a sack.
Kuechly’s athleticism is a big reason why he was selected in the top 10 (No. 9 overall) in 2012. Another reason was his outstanding instincts, which enable him to seemingly be a step ahead of everyone else on the field, including his own teammates. His instincts also allow him to make eye-catching plays even when he looks beat.
Take, for instance, his interception against the Falcons a week earlier. It was a similar situation to the one against McDonald; only Tony Gonzalez was the tight end. Gonzalez was flexed from the formation and, at the snap, ran an out-and-up route that eventually bent back to the middle of the field.
Meanwhile, assigned to pure man coverage this time, Kuechly opened his hips up and turned his back to the quarterback, facing Gonzalez and mirroring every step the tight end took. When Gonzalez broke wide, Kuechly did too, nearly over-committing at one point before regaining ground and turning downfield. His athleticism shined again.
Keeping up with Gonzalez, Kuechly mirrored every move, including when the tight end looked back for the thrown ball. When he did, Kuechly did too, setting himself for what would be a momentum changing interception. Not only did his athleticism shine, but his instincts and technique did too.
It’s plays like these that grab the attention of those studying the young linebacker’s game. It surely grabbed the attention of Brady, who elaborated on Kuechly’s talent during the same press conference quoted earlier.
“He just has a knack for knowing where the ball is going to be, and that’s hard to teach,” Brady said. “I’ve played guys that had that same knack at linebacker. Everybody is different players, everybody has different strengths and weaknesses but when guys are around the ball, making tackles, making tipped passes and covering guys and they’re never out of the play, they’re never fooled. There are guys you play against like Ed Reed, who are great players, Ray Lewis, Zach Thomas, guys that I’ve had the chance to play against that have just a knack for the ball and he has a great knack for the football. That’s a great trait for a defensive player.”
Soon, those traits will make Kuechly the league’s best linebacker and a great player overall.