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Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly is a force to be reckoned with

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Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
No. 59 was the end of the line for numerous Saints on Sunday. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was in on a mind-boggling 24 tackles and also added an interception in the Panthers’ 17-13 victory. Not surprising, Kuechly was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly finished lifting weights Tuesday when a team official told him he had been named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

“Oh, cool,” Kuechly said.

These types of accolades are beginning to become old hat for Kuechly, even if many of his teammates were still trying to get their heads around his 24-tackle performance in the Panthers’ 17-13 win Sunday against New Orleans.

“The thing that I like is we won,” Kuechly said. “Those individual awards are the result of the team. If the D-line didn’t play well, me and Thomas (Davis) wouldn’t have been running around as much.”

This is the second such honor this season for Kuechly and the third of his career, tying him with former Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers for the most in team history.

Kuechly was the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year last season after leading the league in tackles. With Kuechly again creeping up on the NFL’s tackling leaders, the discussion has turned to whether he should win the defensive player of the year award.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Kuechly is “part of the conversation,” and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called him the best defender in the league.

His teammates agree.

“I will say that I think he’s the best defensive player in the league and one day he’s going to be the best linebacker to play this game,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “I really think so.”

Good luck getting Kuechly to talk about himself. His quick first step is matched only by the quickness with which he deflects praise.

“There’s a bunch of other good players out there on the defensive side of the ball you’ve watched the whole year, guys that have made plays in all games,” he said.

No Panthers defensive player has had a game like Kuechly’s Sunday, however – not this year or any of the previous 18 seasons.

Kuechly was credited with 24 tackles in the official press box statistics, tying him with Jets linebacker David Harris (24 vs. Washington in 2007) for the most in the league since 1994, according to STATS LLC.

The Panthers added two tackles to Kuechly’s total after the coaches’ film review, giving him 26. Kuechly broke former linebacker James Anderson’s team record of 20.

“I remember being in the game going, ‘I’m not making any tackles,’ then looking up at the (scoreboard) saying, ‘Luke’s got all the tackles,’ ” free safety Mike Mitchell said. “When you looked at it on tape, he was just flying around. It was one of those performances I’m going to tell my kid about. I was there and saw it and was on the field with a guy that did that.”

Kuechly had 11 tackles at halftime and didn’t slow down during the driving rainstorm in the third quarter. He continued running sideline to sideline making tackles, and intercepted a Drew Brees pass by breaking in front of tight end Jimmy Graham when the rain was at its heaviest.

“I’ve never been around an effort like that, in the run or the pass game,” McDermott said. “Sometimes you get a guy that’s playing really great in the run game and he’s a little bit more one-dimensional. But just an overall outstanding effort.”

Kuechly, the ninth overall pick in 2012, couldn’t point to a specific hit that was his favorite against the Saints. He recalled a couple he didn’t make on reserve running back Khiry Robinson, though.

“He came in the fourth quarter and he was fresh. And I wasn’t as fresh as him,” Kuechly said. “So he made me miss a couple times.”

He hasn’t missed many. At Boston College, Kuechly became the first player in NCAA history to twice lead the country in tackles, and he was the only player to top the ACC’s tackles chart for three seasons.

He had a 19-tackle game against Atlanta last season on the way to becoming the first rookie to lead the league in tackles since Patrick Willis in 2007. After his outburst against the Saints, Kuechly is third in the league in tackles with one game remaining.

Kuechly (146 tackles) trails Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict (157) and Jacksonville linebacker Paul Posluszny (152). Burfict left the Bengals’ game against Minnesota early last week with a head injury and is in the league’s concussion protocol.

Rivera said Kuechly’s first step and his football savvy put him in good position to make plays.

“He goes and seeks the ball,” Rivera said. “He does a great job finding it, too.”

Kuechly, who grew up in Cincinnati, said he was taught at an early age to go hard for the ball carrier.

“If you run to the ball, more times than not you’re going to be around the ball making a tackle,” he said.

His biggest hits now are greeted by the “Star Wars” theme (playing off, “Use the Force, Luke”) on the sound system at Bank of America Stadium. Kuechly, however, is more like Clark Kent to Cam Newton’s Superman – unassuming, bespectacled and more understated than the Panthers quarterback.

McDermott likes seeing his rare displays of emotion, especially when Kuechly punctuates a tackle with a sort of kick-step that will never be confused with a celebration dance.

“I love to see that because that’s him being emotional and intense,” McDermott said. “I know he’s in the groove when he’s doing that.”

Kuechly isn’t sure where he picked up the move.

“Some of the stuff that goes on on the field, I don’t even know,” he said. “My mom’s like, ‘What did you do that for?’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ It just kind of happens.”

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