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Panthers at Saints 8:30 p.m. Sunday (WCNC)

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Panthers’ Luke Kuechly faces tall task in New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham

Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly’s past two trips to New Orleans could not have gone better.

Kuechly helped the Panthers defeat the Saints in Week 17 last December to end the season on a high note, and he was back in the Big Easy five weeks later to collect the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

“It was cool,” Kuechly said of the NFL’s nationally televised awards gala. “But that wasn’t as football-related as going down there for a game.”

There will be no red-carpet entrances or awards banquets for Kuechly this weekend. This is a business trip for him and the Panthers (9-3), who will try to take sole possession of first place in the NFC South with a win over the Saints (9-3).

And Kuechly, the second-year player from Boston College, will try to shake off his recent pass coverage issues and slow down Saints Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham.

Kuechly has had penalty flags thrown in his direction in each of the past three games, including the much-publicized pass interference flag for grabbing/hugging Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski that was waved off on the final play of the Panthers’ 24-20 win on Nov. 18.

Officials also picked up a flag against Kuechly for an end-zone hit on Dolphins receiver Rishard Matthews the following week.

Although only one of the penalties stuck – an illegal contact last week against Tampa Bay – Kuechly concedes he has to improve his coverage techniques. Kuechly believes he’s been in good position, but has to get his head around and make plays on the ball instead of the man.

“When I get to the spot, I’ve got to relax and go from there. It can’t be rush (to) get there, rush (to) play him, rush (to) do this or that. Because that’s when you get out of control,” Kuechly said Thursday. “When I get to the spot – I’m in the right spot, I know what’s going on – then I’ve just got to relax, take a breath and get in a position to make a play on the ball instead of banging guys or doing whatever.”

Kuechly became the first rookie to lead the league in tackles last season since San Francisco’s Patrick Willis in 2007. His stated goal for his second season was to become more effective in coverage.

Kuechly has shown good instincts on passes thrown in front of him. His three interceptions rank second on the team behind safety Mike Mitchell’s four picks.

Where Kuechly has gotten in trouble are on longer passes – a staple of the New Orleans offense and a specialty of Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

The NFL analytics site Pro Football Focus ranks Kuechly 29th among 52 inside linebackers in pass coverage. Kuechly is PFF’s third-ranked inside linebacker against the run, behind Dallas’ Sean Lee and New England’s Brandon Spikes.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera, a linebacker for nine seasons with the Chicago Bears, said Kuechly can be too aggressive in coverage at times.

“It’s very hard because one of the things you try to do and try to emphasize is being physical with receivers, especially guys that come across the middle or through the middle,” Rivera said. “And if the guy’s coming across I’m going to try to roll into him. And that’s one of the things Luke does. He rolls into these guys and he’s a very physical, handsy player.

“He’s just got to work at it and get better at it and he will.”

Kuechly and his defensive teammates face a tall task in Graham, the 6-foot-7 former University of Miami basketball player. Graham, who caught nine passes for 115 yards and a touchdown in the Week 17 loss to Carolina last season, has a team-record 12 receiving touchdowns, tied for the league lead.

He leads tight ends in virtually every receiving category, with 68 receptions for 988 yards.

“I think he’s a lot like Gronk – big, strong, fast, catches the ball, uses his body well. And they throw the ball to him a lot,” Kuechly said. “You just have to know where he is. I think that’s the biggest thing is get your hands on him, try to push him around a little bit and just know where he is.”

Rivera said he sees similarities, and differences, in Graham and Gronkowski.

“Jimmy's such an above-the-rim player with his basketball background and how he elevates and makes plays,” he said. “Gronkowski is a very well-rounded player himself. They are both outstanding talents.”

Kuechly, too, is an outstanding talent, and among the NFL’s most respected young linebackers. He’s 10th in the league with 102 tackles and is fourth among inside linebackers in fan balloting for the Pro Bowl.

“He doesn’t leave the field. So he’s someone who can look closely at formations, splits, back sets, and based on his study, have a great grasp on what play might be coming,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He can run extremely well. He’s a physical tackler. All the things you look for in an inside linebacker, those traits are present with him.

“He’s having a fantastic season. They ask him to do a lot, and he responds and does it in a great fashion.”

Like Rivera, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said Kuechly needs to tone down his aggression in coverage. But he thinks Kuechly gets a bad rap in that area.

“He’s one of the best covering linebackers I’ve ever seen,” Munnerlyn said. “He’s got great hands. He can run with any of those tight ends. I think he can cover real well.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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