Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has been racking up the tackles all season. Now, the rookie from Boston College has picked up an award, as well.
Kuechly was named the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Week on Wednesday after finishing with a career-high 16 tackles in the Panthers’ 30-20 win against Atlanta. He is the first Panthers’ defensive player to earn the honor since linebacker Jon Beason in Week 16 in 2009.
Kuechly, the No. 9 overall pick this year, leads the NFL with 131 tackles, including 79 solo stops. His performance against the Falcons marked the third time this season he’s finished with at least 15 tackles. No other NFL player has more than one 15-tackle game.
“He’s done a fantastic job. He just makes plays,” Panthers wideout Steve Smith said. “He’s a young guy that came in, didn’t come in entitled, real eager to learn. Takes notes. I’ve had a lot of conversations with him. He asked me questions back in OTAs. It doesn’t surprise me how much success he’s having. I don’t think he’s even cracked the surface.”
Kuechly, who began the season at weakside linebacker, has been the Panthers’ leading tackler in seven of the nine games since moving to the middle after Beason went on injured reserve with shoulder and knee issues.
HARDY-BRYANT FEUD: Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy is talking again. Last week Hardy said the Panthers were better than the Falcons, who had clinched the NFC South with a month remaining in the season.
After the Panthers beat Atlanta 30-20 on Sunday, a Charlotte TV cameraman taped Hardy telling Falcons players to “Get the (expletive) off our field” – the same comment Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan made after the Falcons beat Carolina in Week 4.
Hardy was not available for comment after the game. But he was back at it Wednesday when asked about his post-game exchange with Falcons kicker Matt Bryant, who told Hardy he could watch the Falcons during the postseason.
“I really didn’t know who he was. He was so small and weird-shaped, I was trying to figure out what he did,” Hardy said. “I found out when I looked online that he was a kicker. I was a little shocked.”
NORMAN TO SCOUT TEAM: Rookie cornerback Josh Norman has gone from starter to scout team in two weeks. Norman, a fifth-round pick who started the first 12 games, was benched for the start of the Atlanta game and was in for only nine defensive snaps.
Norman was on the scout team Wednesday as the Panthers began preparing for San Diego.
“It’s real frustrating. You go from starting 12-13 games, playing 60-70 reps, to not playing at all?” Norman said. “You progress and all year play at a high level, and then toward the end (coaches) pull you off from playing all that. It’s kind of hard to digest that. It’s kind of hard just sitting back and watching.”
JOHNNY HEISMAN: As a former winner of the award, Cam Newton has had a Heisman vote each of the past two seasons. And in each vote, he’s picked the winner.
Newton said Texas A&M redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel “absolutely” got his vote, just like Robert Griffin III got Newton’s last season.
Among his records set this season, Manziel broke Newton’s SEC single-season total yardage record.
“I’m very happy for Johnny Manziel. For his impact, doing the things that he’s done this particular year, this guy’s unbelievable,” Newton said. “I was a big fan of him, watching him each and every Saturday.”
INJURY UPDATE: Six Carolina starters missed practice Wednesday, though Rivera was less concerned for some of them.
Strong safety Charles Godfrey did not play against the Falcons due to a back injury. He practiced Wednesday, and Rivera said he will move Godfrey to free safety against the Chargers, with rookie D.J. Campbell shifting to strong safety.
Also sitting out was running back Jonathan Stewart, who has not played since suffering a high ankle sprain against Philadelphia in Week 12. Stewart said the injury has limited his lateral movement.
Linebacker Thomas Davis (knee), center Geoff Hangartner (sprained foot), WR Louis Murphy (hamstring), WR Brandon LaFell (turf toe) and DT Dwan Edwards (wrist) were all out.
Rivera said Davis and Murphy were held out for rest, while LaFell did work on Tuesday and did not experience any setbacks.