As Tampa Bay sat with the fifth overall pick in April’s draft, many analysts and fans speculated on some of the prospects the Bucs would be interested in selecting with the pick. The Buccaneers eventually traded back with Jacksonville to the seventh overall spot and at the time, Luke Kuechly was a name that came up repeatedly over the next several minutes to be selected with that pick. As it turned out, the Bucs went with Mark Barron, and two spots later, division rival Carolina would take the middle linebacker out of Boston College.
Kuechly began his NFL career at weakside linebacker, a far cry from the middle where he amassed over 530 tackles in three seasons for the Eagles. After the Panthers’ three-time Pro-bowl Mike, Jon Beason, was placed on injured reserve with knee and shoulder injuries, the rookie would have to step in and play one of the hardest positions at this level.
“You know it’s one of those things where I played a little bit in the middle during OTA’s and at camp,” Kuechly said, “So it wasn’t going to be something that was totally new, but I just knew that I had to re-look everything over and get comfortable with it because at the Mike you have to be able to call a defense, get everyone set, and there’s a little bit more responsibility to hold everybody accountable and be ready to go.”
Kuechly leads Carolina, and all rookies, with 108 tackles and has played extremely well in Beason’s absence, racking up 18 tackles against Dallas last month. Since being moved to middle linebacker, the Ohio native is averaging 15.2 tackles per game and has recorded double-digit tackles in all five games starting at MLB.
“I’ve become more comfortable as the season’s progressed,” Kuechly said. “I’m taking reps in games, reps in practice and the more reps you get the more and more comfortable you can be so I’m still not 100-percent comfortable with everything, but I’m getting to the point now where stuff’s becoming familiar and I’m comfortable with things.”
As well as Kuechly is playing, the Panthers have only two wins on the season so far and the former two-time All-American was candid about what Carolina needs to do to get back on track.
“We just have to be able to finish games,” Kuechly said. “I think that’s kind of been a trend this year. We’ve played well throughout most of the game then we get to the end of the fourth quarter or the fourth quarter and we’re just not able to step over the line and finish a team at the end of the game and get a win. So we always do that at Washington at the end of the game we always come up with good plays on offense and defense and I think that’s what you got to do to win – you got to play well through all four quarters.”
Since coming off the bye week, the Buccaneers have played exceptionally well with four wins and one close loss to New Orleans. Tampa Bay’s offense is tied for 12th in the league averaging 365.6 total yards per game and third in points scored with 28.9 points per contest. Compared to the 16 points the Bucs scored in the season opener, a lot has changed with Tampa Bay’s offense in the last nine weeks.
“They’re clicking right now,” Kuechly said. “They’re running the ball extremely well, once you can run the ball well, your offense can open up a little bit. The offensive line has been playing well, they’re getting a lot of chunk plays. I think they’re one of the top teams in the league right now as far as yards per play, so Doug Martin’s been playing great, Josh Freeman’s been playing great and is able to get the ball down the field to some of the wide receivers.”
As much as everything is coming together for the Bucs’ offense, Freeman has done a tremendous job not only as a quarterback, but as a leader.
“You know he’s playing very confident right now,” Kuechly said, “He’s doing a good job, he’s comfortable back there, he’s making good reads, and he’s getting the ball to where it needs to be and when you have a guy that has a good run game, he’s a guy that’s tough to stop.”
The challenge Tampa Bay’s offense brings to a defense is the multi-faceted game plan that the Bucs run. One way to combat the high octane attack is to suppress one aspect of it.
“You have to be able to stop the run, you have to make a team one dimensional,” Kuechly said. “Like you said, they’re doing a good job running the ball so we need to make sure we’re doing a good job of staying in our gaps and hitting stuff up high when we need to sit so we can stop the run game.”
In the first meeting, Martin rushed for 95 yards against the Panthers but that was with a limited Kuechly. Both Martin and Kuechly have progressed through the
season nicely and are each picking up steam.
The Panthers’ first round draft pick was coy about answering if he was excited for the opportunity to go up against Martin one-on-one, but did say he was looking forward to be more involved this game.
“You know, it’ll be good to be back in the middle and get to play a little bit more,” Kuechly said. “I didn’t get to play a whole lot last game because we were in and out of different packages and stuff. So this week it will be fun, I’ll get on the field a little more and get a chance to get out there and play a little more football.”