During halftime of the Panthers-Ravens game Thursday night, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden stepped out of the broadcast booth to take a break and, like everyone watching at home, to process what hed just seen from Luke Kuechly.
In the span of three series in the second quarter, the Panthers second-year linebacker helped create four turnovers one that was overturned by the officials and staked his claim as the games next great middle linebacker.
Kuechlys a (beast), isnt he? Gruden said. You lose (Brian) Urlacher. You lose Ray Lewis. Someones got to take the torch. Hes got the torch.
Kuechly took the torch from an injured Jon Beason last season, moving from outside to middle linebacker and becoming the heart of a Panthers defense that improved dramatically after the switch.
Following the retirements of Urlacher and Lewis, several well-respected NFL figures are pointing to Kuechly as the player most likely to replace Urlacher and Lewis as the premiere middle linebacker.
Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel from 1960-89, was one of the first observers to suggest Kuechly as a possible heir to the Urlacher/Lewis throne in an NFL.com column in May.
When Gruden was studying video while preparing for the Panthers game at Baltimore, the former Tampa Bay and Oakland coach couldnt take his eyes of Kuechly.
I saw him on film. He made every tackle the (first) two preseason games. Hes really something, Gruden said. You loved him coming out of Boston College. You cant put the projector down and take three or four steps without saying, Who the heck is that guy?
There are a handful of players who can make a strong case as the leagues best inside linebacker. Kuechly cites the San Francisco tandem of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, as well as two other players from the 2012 draft Seattles Bobby Wagner and Tampa Bays Lavonte David, who is an outside linebacker.
Derrick Johnson and Jerod Mayo have been perennial Pro Bowlers, while James Laurinaitis and Brian Cushing have become defensive pillars for St. Louis and Houston, respectively.
But coaches and personnel experts rave about Kuechlys combination of youth, speed, size, toughness and instincts even if Kuechly is mostly mum on the topic of his place among the best linebackers.
Hes a very humble young man, so Ill do it for him and tell you he has an opportunity to ascend, said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, a linebacker for nine NFL seasons. And if he continues to grow, well most certainly be talking about him in the same way as those great linebackers.
A dominant performance
Kuechly was being talked about everywhere in the hours after his transcendent performance against the Ravens. If fans outside of Charlotte didnt know much about Kuechly after he won the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2012, they should now.
Kuechly was involved in seemingly every play in the second quarter. He fired into the backfield on a blitz to hurry Joe Flacco on a throw Drayton Florence intercepted and returned 71 yards for a touchdown.
On the next series, Kuechly made a beeline for running back Bernard Pierce, whose fumble was recovered by the Panthers Thomas Davis for a 2-yard touchdown.
With the Ravens driving on their next possession, Kuechly clocked receiver Aaron Mellette, popping the ball into the hands of safety Charles Godfrey for an apparent interception. It was nullified when officials called Kuechly for unnecessary roughness.
Two plays later, Kuechly read Flacco and broke in front of tight end Visanthe Shiancoe for an interception he returned 29 yards. Kuechly then channeled his inner-Steve Smith, spinning the ball to punctuate the play.
Kuechlys final line: seven tackles, a forced fumble, an interception and two pass breakups.
The interception and pass defenses were noteworthy: Kuechly said recently his coverage skills were what he wants most to improve in his second season.
You dont have to be around him long to know that hes going to be a great one. Hes already working toward that, Panthers rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. You could just tell (Thursday) with the plays he was making over and over, thats why they call him Clark Kent, I guess. Hes a beast.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton added: Ive always been a big fan of Luke. He made an unbelievable play on that interception. I know what a competitor he is and how hard he works. Hes only reached the tip of the iceberg.
Back in the middle
Kuechly said everything changed last season when Beason went down and he moved to the middle, his position during a record-breaking career at Boston College. Kuechly averaged eight tackles a game through the first four weeks, but finished with 16 against Seattle in Week 5 in his first start at middle linebacker.
When I got bumped to the (middle) in that Seattle game, it started to come to me a little bit. Everything started looking like it used to at school. As the games progressed, I got a little more comfortable, Kuechly said.
The Dallas game (an 18-tackle performance in Week 7), I think I got to the point where, All right, Im good. Just got to keep working. As the year progressed, you just get more and more comfortable. It just felt a little bit more natural.
After Kuechlys switch, the Panthers jumped from 24th to 10th in total defense, allowing 60 fewer yards a game.
For a defense to improve that much with one move is unheard of, said Brandt, who built the Cowboys dynasty of the 1970s. This is a heck of a football player.
Kuechly ended up leading the league in tackles, becoming the first rookie to do so since Willis in 2007.
He credits the guidance he received from the teams veteran linebackers, including Beason, with his rapid development.
When Beas went down and I moved to the middle, I talked to him all the time. He sat next to me in the meeting room. I would talk to him about plays and how he plays things, and how they want us to do it, Kuechly said. Especially in the divisional games, (Beason would say), Drew Brees does this. Matt Ryan does this. Josh Freemans like this. Tony Gonzalez runs his routes this way. Just little things he was able to help me out with.
Panthers linebacker Jordan Senn said Kuechly was a sponge, willing to listen to anyone if he thought it could give him an edge on Sundays.
Hes not the type of guy that thinks hes already got it all. Hes willing to take advice from anyone. Last year he had no problem with me coaching him. And its not like Ive been out there a ton, said Senn, a backup for most of his career. But he was willing to take any knowledge I was going to give him.
Kuechly is flattered by the comparisons to Lewis and Urlacher, but is quick to defer to some of the older linebackers. Kuechly puts Beason, a three-time Pro Bowler before injuries wiped out most of the past two seasons, in that elite group.
Where does he rank himself?
The goal is to be the best you can be. Thats everyones goal to be the best player you can be, Kuechly said. Itd be good to keep moving forward and getting to that level of Brian Urlacher. But hes been around for so long and accomplished so much, you cant really compare yourself to him right now. But moving forward, if I can get to that point, thatd be great.
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