There were moments Sunday afternoon in the Panthers discouraging 16-12 loss to Seattle at Bank of America Stadium when rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly seemed capable of doing whatever the Carolina defense needed from him.
Playing his first NFL game at middle linebacker, shifting from his regular weak side spot to account for the absence of starter Jon Beason, Kuechly started slowly but settled into the spot he came to dominate at Boston College.
Keying a defensive effort that limited the Seahawks to one touchdown and held Marshawn Lynch, the leagues leading rusher, to 85 yards, Kuechly had a huge impact. He led the Panthers with 11 total tackles, had one interception and one tackle for loss.
The numbers were lost on Kuechly.
The object of football is to win, Kuechly said You work so hard during the week and the offseason that when you play, you want to win. If you dont win, thats all you play for. You can play bad and win if you play good and you lose, it doesnt matter.
Everyone in here plays to win. We didnt get the outcome we wanted but we did some good things. Moving forward, we have to keep the good things and eliminate the bad.
Kuechly wasnt the only Panthers defender forced into a different role Sunday. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who typically plays as an extra defensive back in passing situations, replaced injured starter Chris Gamble at cornerback and responded with a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter, the Panthers only touchdown.
Its about winning football games. Its not about personal stats, Munnerlyn said.
When it became increasingly apparent last week that Beason would likely miss the Seattle game because of a knee injury, Kuechly made the shift to middle linebacker. Coach Ron Rivera said before the game that he was weighing the value of moving Kuechly against keeping the rookie at where hes played since training camp began.
Ultimately, Kuechly moved to the middle, bringing Thomas Davis back into the starting lineup on one side with James Anderson on the other. Kuechly had problems early in the game, adjusting to what the Seahawks were doing. Seattle kicked field goals on two of its first three offensive possessions and they turned into big scores in a game that had just two touchdowns.
It was tough in the beginning, Kuechly said. Its one of those things where you move and you get comfortable in practice then you get to the game and its a whole other speed. Its one of those things having James (Anderson) and Thomas (Davis) and (Jon) Beason there, (Beason) was talking to me throughout the game. Youve got to do this, do that. Youve got to step over That was helpful.
As the game progressed, you get comfortable. You know what theyre trying to do. You can counter that. You start realizing sets, realizing whos trying to block you and if you can beat that guy you can make some plays.
With the Panthers leading 10-6 in the third quarter, Kuechly hit Lynch after the Seahawks running back caught a pass near the sideline. The hit knocked the ball loose and Kuechly grabbed it, ending a Seahawks threat at the Panthers 23.
He did a great job, Davis said. He had one week of work at the (middle linebacker) position and he went out and had a phenomenal game. He did a great job of filling in. We expect that out of him.
Looking past the disappointment of a third straight loss, Rivera liked what he saw from Kuechly and the linebackers.
I thought Luke did some things that were exciting, Rivera said. I thought Thomas Davis, getting his first opportunity to start again, looked very well. James Anderson was solid.
With a short work week before breaking for the bye weekend, Kuechly said the challenge will be not to look back but to focus on the future.
You cant look at (the record), Kuechly said. We have a bye week and you try to think of it as a new season. We have the 11 games coming up and we have to treat that as 11 new challenges and try to get 11 wins. If we get 11 wins, well be all right.