No one player is supposed to make or break a defense.
There are players like J.J. Watt, who make them more terrifying; and there’s Josh Norman, who makes teams think twice about throwing. Yet arguably neither of them contribute a greater importance to their teams than Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.
In Kuechly’s first game back from concussion protocol he led the Panthers to a 17-3 victory in an important NFC South matchup against the Bucs. Stymieing an offense run by a banged-up Jameis Winston isn’t the impressive part. The manner in which Carolina did it is.
That comes back to Kuechly. He finished the day with eight total tackles (seven solo), with one tackle for loss and an interception to shut down any chance at a comeback with Carolina up by two touchdowns. It was the second pick in as many possessions for Tampa Bay, though the first was much more costly.
Early in the fourth quarter, and trailing 10-3, Winston took a hit while throwing and sent the ball right to safety Mike Adams. During his attempt to run the ball back, Adams fumbled on a hit from wideout Adam Humphries. And that didn’t even matter because as soon as the ball came loose there was Kuechly diving on top of it for the recovery.
Cam Newton (18-of-32, 154 yards, one touchdown) found Kelvin Benjamin for a 25-yard touchdown pass just five plays later to put Carolina up 14. Kuechly’s interception on the next drive made that more than enough to secure a victory. The linebacker read the pass the whole way, first creeping up to the line to position his teammates, then dropping into coverage to make the play.
Tampa Bay boasted a top-ten offense coming into Sunday’s matchup. It had home-field advantage, too. Kuechly’s presence negated all of that. After two straight losses for Carolina there could be no greater sign for a team trying to prove its status as a contender.
The sixth-year linebacker might not set any career records this season, but as long as he’s healthy the Panthers have as fearsome a defense as any team in the league.
It’s why Winston finished 21-of-38 passing for 218 yards and and no touchdowns. And why no Buccaneer rushed for more than Doug Martin‘s 71 yards — or even had a run longer than 17 yards all game.
Carolina already boasted one of the NFL’s top five defenses coming into Sunday. That’s after a week-and-a-half without its defensive star. There’s no question what Kuechly adds to the Panthers. If he can stay healthy, there shouldn’t be a question of how far this team can go, either.