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New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers 8:40 p.m. Monday (ESPN)

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Luke Kuechly vs. Rob Gronkowski matchup could be crucial for Panthers

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/14/20/00/JGEB1.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Charles Krupa - AP
    New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, right, a Pro Bowler the past two seasons, missed the first six games while waiting for his forearm to heal. Gronkowski underwent four operations in a 10-month span to repair a broken bone and to treat subsequent infections, according to the Boston Globe.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/14/23/51/161Q9C.Em.138.JPG|388
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who led the NFL in tackles in 2012, said before this season he wanted to improve his coverage skills. His three interceptions – tied for the team lead – would seem to indicate he’s on his way.

When Luke Kuechly played at Boston College, the Eagles practiced on Sundays during the season, preventing him from heading south to Foxborough to see the New England Patriots play.

But the Carolina Panthers linebacker will get a close-up look at the Patriots on Monday night in Charlotte, and figures to spend part of the game matched against the (wild) man known as Gronk.

The Panthers’ defensive schemes and Patriots’ play calls will dictate how often Kuechly is asked to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose return from a forearm injury has helped kick New England’s passing game into high gear.

But Kuechly is looking forward to the matchup, regardless of how many plays it turns out to be.

“It’s fun going against good players,” Kuechly said Thursday. “He’s a good player. He’s big. He’s physical. He’s one of the top tight ends. So it should be fun for us.”

Gronkowski, a Pro Bowler the past two seasons, missed the first six games while waiting for his forearm to heal. Gronkowski underwent four operations in a 10-month span to repair a broken bone and to treat subsequent infections, according to the Boston Globe.

Gronkowski’s injury added to the Patriots’ early-season issues with their passing attack following the losses of receiver Wes Welker and pass-catching running back Danny Woodhead in free agency.

Gronkowski’s return has taken the pressure off rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, who struggled with dropped passes early on.

In a 55-31 win over Pittsburgh on Nov. 3, the Patriots put up the most points and yards (610) against the Steelers in their 81-year history. Gronkowski caught a career-high nine passes for 143 yards, as the Patriots had three players finish with 100 yards receiving for the first time in their history.

“Obviously he’s a significant player for us offensively, a big target in the passing game. I think he’s definitely helped us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski. “He doesn’t have a lot of football work this year. ... Hopefully as we work into the second half of the season he’ll keep improving every week, and his game will get better and he’ll be more productive for us as the year goes along.”

Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell had a more colorful description of Gronkowski.

“That dude’s a monster. He’s a receiver that just happens to be a very big man,” Mitchell said. “The way he runs his routes, he’s very skilled. And there’s absolutely no way you could sleep on his ability.”

Gronkowski’s accomplishments fill 2 1/2 pages in the Patriots’ weekly media release.

His 1,327 receiving yards in 2011 are the most by a tight end in NFL history. He’s caught 39 touchdown passes from Tom Brady since entering the league in 2010, tied with former Patriots receiver Randy Moss for the most among Brady’s targets.

Those stats could be disconcerting for the Panthers, who allowed Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez to get loose for a big first half two weeks ago. After Gonzalez caught five passes for 77 yards and a touchdown, the Panthers held him to one catch for 4 yards in the second half.

“He uses his size very nicely, similar to what Tony Gonzalez does,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Gronkowski. “Some of the things you see him do, he’s almost like a basketball player blocking you out. But he has enough linear speed to get vertical on you and he catches the ball very well. He’s got a tremendous attitude. He’s a very excitable guy who plays with a lot of passion.”

Rivera said coverage responsibilities on Gronkowski would be shared by several players, and Mitchell hinted the linebackers would get safety help.

But the prospect of watching Kuechly, last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, go head-to-head with Gronkowski seems to be the most appealing. Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, a FOX and NFL Network analyst, tweeted this week that he was looking forward to the Gronk-Kuechly matchup.

Kuechly, who led the league in tackles in 2012, said before this season he wanted to improve his coverage skills. His three interceptions – tied with Mitchell for the team lead – would seem to indicate he’s on his way.

Belichick called Kuechly an instinctive player who’s around the ball a lot.

“A very good pass defender,” Belichick said. “He’s got good speed, and you see him running with guys in the deep part of the field in their Tampa-2 coverage. He’s got good pursuit to the sideline, makes a lot of plays outside the numbers. Again, a very instinctive guy that can read the quarterback well.”

Mitchell was asked how Kuechly would fare against Gronkowski.

“Kuech can hang with anyone in this league,” Mitchell said. “Have you not seen Luke? He’s the best, man.”

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