Depending on your football acumen, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly may not be a household name to you. He is young, somewhat soft-spoken off of the field and plays on the defensive side of a smaller-market team. Regardless of his national prominence, what is clear is that the third-year player is already one of the top middle linebackers in the league at the tender age of 23. After the Panthers selected Kuechly with the ninth overall pick in the 2012 draft, he proceeded to lead the league in tackles during his rookie campaign with 164 while securing Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. In his sophomore season, he encored by racking up 156 more tackles and was named Defensive Player of the Year.
After starting his career at outside linebacker, Kuechly stepped back into his natural middle linebacker position for the Panthers partially through his rookie season after an injury forced starter Jon Beason to injured reserve. Kuechly was so effective in that role that he supplanted Beason at middle linebacker even after the three-time Pro Bowler's return from injury the following season. This move prompted the Panthers to trade Beason to the New York Giants midway through the 2013 season.
While quarterbacking the Panthers defense last year, Kuechly turned the unit into one of the stingiest in the league. The team's 301.2 yards allowed per game ranked second in the league, behind only the much higher-profile Seattle Seahawks. As a run-stuffing specialist, Kuechly led a unit that allowed only 86.9 yards per game on the ground, which was also the second-lowest average in the league (behind the Arizona Cardinals).
Kuechly is showing no signs of letting up as he starts his third season. In Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kuechly filled up the stat sheet with nine tackles, a critical third-down sack, a forced fumble and a pass defense that resulted in an interception. For these Herculean efforts, Pro Football Focus awarded him a +5.5 grade while crediting him with five defensive stops. All of this came despite playing with his right thumb in a cast after hyperextending the digit during the preseason. He is likely to wear the cast this week against the Detroit Lions, but it obviously will do little to decrease his effectiveness.
While Kuechly is not a considered an elite pass rusher -- he has four sacks in his career -- he has the speed and power to control the center of the field. He is best known for shedding blocks and plugging rushing lanes, but is also capable of covering tight ends in the open field. He has 4.58 40-yard-dash speed and the strength to bump tight ends off of their routes, both of which are key to controlling interior passing lanes. Kuechly flashed this skill set last week against Tampa Bay. Of the Buccaneers' 55 plays, they ran 20 into the middle of the field. The result was two turnovers and seven plays that netted less than one yard, and only three went more for more than 10 yards. Obviously, that cannot all be credited to Kuechly, but teams enter his domain at their own peril.
This week, Kuechly and his cohorts face the Lions' struggling running game. Last week against the Giants, the Lions rushed 30 times for only 76 yards, a paltry 2.5 average. Running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush improved as the game went on, but they were at their most effective in the passing game. Their test will not be any easier this week against the much tougher Panthers rushing defense. New Lions fullback Jed Collins will have his hands full trying to pave the way for the rushers against the block-shedding Kuechly. The Lions may have to rely more heavily on misdirection and draw plays to keep the Panthers away from the line of scrimmage.
The Lions' tight ends also face a difficult matchup against the Panthers' linebacking corps. In Week 1, the Buccaneers' tight ends were quarterback Josh McCown's primary safety valve and caught numerous short-yardage dump-offs. Luckily, the Lions' tight end group might be the deepest position on the team. Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron and Joseph Fauria were made to stretch the field and make big plays rather than serve primarily as a safety valve. Kuechly may be above average as a covering linebacker, but I do not think any linebacking corps in the league is capable of stopping the Lions' pass-catching tight ends. There are a lot of mouths to feed in the Lions offense, and the tight ends were somewhat overlooked last week as the Lions milked the clock for two and a half quarters, but I expect offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi to dial up plenty of action for these pass catchers to take pressure off of the running game.