Blake Baxter

Kuechly Leads Panthers Into NFL's Elite Class

Created on Dec. 01, 2013 5:36 AM EST

For the Carolina Panthers, it has been a season that easily falls into distinguishable stretches. In the first stretch of the season, the Panthers were among the dregs of the NFL. They fell to 1-3, with their only victory coming over the struggling New York Giants, and it looked like the third season with head coach Ron Rivera at the helm would be the last. In the next stretch of the season, Carolina rallied back and clobbered lesser opponents week after week, becoming an unlikely playoff hopeful in the process. However, they remained untested, never encountering a team with a winning record during that stretch. After that came their most recent stretch, in which Carolina had to make the transition from possible playoff hopeful to legitimate contender.

Coming into this leg of the season over a month ago, it appeared that the Panthers needed to win three out of their next four to stay in the hunt for the division, if not the playoffs. Two out of four might be good enough, but it would probably leave too much to chance. But to nearly everyone’s surprise, the Panthers came out on top in each of those four games, knocking off a division foe in the Atlanta Falcons, consistent contenders in the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots and the up-and-down Miami Dolphins.

A lot of things happened over the course of the past two stretches that make up a seven-game Carolina win streak. QB Cam Newton played up to his potential and Rivera strayed from his ultra-conservative coaching style. They traded away a piece that was not needed any longer and role players like WR Ted Ginn Jr. stepped up. Carolina received a little luck along the way, too. But more than anything, their defense has been more or less phenomenal. One of the biggest reasons why has been the continued excellence of outstanding second-year LB Luke Kuechly.

The Panthers drafted Kuechly with the ninth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Although they already had Pro Bowl MLB Jon Beason, he had recently been injured and Kuechly was too enticing of a talent for the Panthers to pass up. He was a three-time All-American and a three-time All-ACC first teamer at Boston College during his three collegiate seasons. In his last season, he won a plethora of awards while averaging almost 16 tackles per game and leading the country in tackles overall with 191.

In his rookie season in the NFL, Kuechly started off as an outside linebacker but once Beason went down with another injury, he was moved back to his natural position. After that, he transformed into a beast, finishing the regular season with more tackles than anyone in the league with 164 and recording one sack, two interceptions, eight passes defensed and three fumble recoveries. At season’s end, Kuechly was named Defensive Rookie of the Year.

This season, Kuechly has already recorded 93 tackles through 11 games, which is not quite the pace he set last year, but his presence, along with improvements to the Carolina defensive line, has changed the way that opponents attack the Panthers defense. Last season, Carolina's defense was tough, but they are now amongst the best in the league and at just 22 years of age, Kuechy has become the heart and soul of it.

He has been a natural leader and is always a part of the Panthers’ biggest plays – for better or worse. In Week 2 against the Bills, Kuechly’s pass interference in the fourth quarter played a big part in Buffalo stealing a victory in the final seconds of the game. His defense on TE Rob Gronkowski at the end of the Patriots game was debated by talking heads in the sports media cycle for days, but you can’t dispute his drive. Kuechly is unquestionably one of the most imposing linebackers in the league and already has three interceptions and six passes defensed this season. His play this season has not only elevated the Panthers, but it has also put him in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.

Coming into the final stretch of the season, the Panthers are just one game behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South race. The team has a showdown with New Orleans coming up, but even if they can’t overtake the Saints, the Panthers have a pretty good shot at capturing the NFC Wild Card. Either way, Luke Kuechly’s exceptional play, daunting presence and precocious leadership has already played an integral role in Carolina's success and will continue to do so in the future.