Many were stunned when the Carolina Panthers selected Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly No. 9 overall at the 2012 draft. The team was decimated defensively, seemingly hopeless along the interior defensive line and in the secondary, but they chose to upgrade the one area that they probably could have waited on.
Nearly a year later, there are few questions about the selection. Kuechly was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year on Feb. 3 after leading the league with 164 tackles while filling in for an injured Jon Beason at middle linebacker. Although the season ended well for the first-year linebacker, it didn't begin that way.
While at Boston College, the linebacker became known for his rare instincts, quality range and athletic ability in coverage. He also had a good understanding of offensive concepts and was praised by many, including NFL Network guru Mike Mayock, for his ability to stay on the field all three downs (via boston.com).
He’s the best pass-dropping inside linebacker I’ve ever seen in college football. He has instincts and speed. So on the third down, when the sub package comes in the game, he’s going to stay in the game a lot like a Sean Lee in Dallas.
But when Kuechly traveled to Tampa Bay and started his first career game against the Buccaneers in Week 1, he struggled mightily in coverage.
He was uncharacteristically overaggressive while at other times, a step slow reacting. Perhaps the game was too fast for him or he was trying to do too much. That happens with rookie linebackers and a low light of it came on a 15-yard reception by Bucs fullback Erik Lorig, who was wide open on a shoot (flat) route.
It was 1st-and-10 with the ball on the Bucs' own 41-yard line. The fullback was part of an I-formation, and Kuechly, starting at weak-side linebacker, was in a 20-technique across the right guard. It was going to be a play action fake to the left of the formation, with Freeman rolling right and outside of the pocket.
When the ball snapped, Freeman executed the fake to running back Doug Martin and left the pocket. Lorig took forward steps as if he was going to block and then turned outside, running toward the sideline to complete his route. Meanwhile, Kuechly got caught up in the backfield action and took a couple of false steps that made it difficult to change directions.
At that point, Lorig caught the football and ran down the sideline for 15 yards before Kuechly, who has an admirable motor, ran him out of bounds. After the end of the game, he was removed from nickel packages in the coming games. This meant that anytime the Panthers faced 11 personnel (three receiver sets), the most popular personnel grouping in the NFL, he was absent from the field, as was the case on the crucial final drive of the Week 4 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
It also meant that he was going to be involved primarily on run downs, which was difficult for him at first. He lost gap discipline multiple times and had some issues dealing with moving blockers. The latter was not entirely his fault, however, as the defensive line didn't protect him well.
In the Panthers' 4-3 defense, Kuechly was supposed to be protected by space eaters up front, and that didn't happen. The defensive tackles would get reach and cut blocked, leading to their young linebacker being mauled by road graders at the second level. This issue would come and go throughout the season, but he and the defense did improve.
When Kuechly made his biggest improvements, he was at middle linebacker. In Week 5, he was tabbed to replace injured veteran Jon Beason, and his game took off. He became a much better player and looked more comfortable at the spot he played in college, as he explained (via charlotteobserver.com).
“I was like, ‘All right, this feels better. This feels more comfortable. I knew that I had to learn, learn, learn. I didn’t take a whole lot of reps at the Mike. So that (bye) week after the Seattle game, I could relax, sit down and be like, ‘All right, look, it’s middle linebacker like I’ve always done.’ I just went from there.”
What stood out about Kuechly's game was how much better he was reading his keys and the play action fakes that gave him issues previously. This stood out on a play fake by the Chicago Bears offense in Week 8.
The Panthers were in their base defensive package against the Bears' 12 (one back, two tight ends) personnel. He was lined up in the A-gap between the center and left guard before the snap and would be responsible for patrolling the middle of the field.
Chicago knew Kuechly's responsibilities on the play, so they tried to force him to come up against the run before throwing over him but he didn't fall for it.
When the Bears offense snapped the football, their offensive linemen raised up, giving the linebacker a "high-hat" read, which indicates pass. He knew this and dropped back in coverage while scanning the backfield.
Coming from his right, a receiver ran a shallow crossing pattern that forced Kuechly to open his hips up to his right. However, this was the opposite way of where the receiver was going, so he had to flip his hips to his left and then run with the pass-catcher. He blanketed him in coverage in the process.
This was the athleticism and flexibility that many had associated with Kuechly in college. He was an excellent pass defender there and became a better one over the course of the regular season, which gives the Panthers high hopes going into next season.
If he continues to improve, there's a good chance that the young linebacker will be getting plenty more snaps and awards in the near future.