Luke Kuechly has faced off against a Kyle Shanahan offense at least twice a year since 2015 and five times total since 2014, so it’s safe to say the two are pretty familiar with each other.
Now, the middle linebacker and face of the Panthers defense will square up to Shanahan once again – this time in Carolina’s season opener on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara.
And this time, Shanahan is the head coach.
“Yeah, he’s definitely an issue,” said Shanahan of Kuechly while on a conference call on Wednesday afternoon. “He’s definitely as tough as any linebacker in the league to prepare for. I’ve always known that, but going against him two times in a year in the last couple of years, it’s ... I have even more respect for him each time I play against him.”
It’s not just Kuechly’s athleticism that Shanahan says he’s worried about, either.
“It’s how smart he is,” he said. “He usually knows the plays that you’re (running). He can call them out before you run them. He knows all of the offensive linemen’s calls. He’s very hard to beat in the run game, and he’s very hard to make pay in the play-action. He’s just as big of a challenge for a playcaller as he is for (a player).
“Because if you’re going stuff he is expecting, not only does he make the play, but he usually turns it into an interception or a fumble.”
But Kuechly said he’s expecting a few wrinkles from Shanahan.
“Yeah, I mean he’s going to do his thing, he’s going to run his stuff that he likes,” said Kuechly with a grin on Wednesday. “There’s going to be some carryover from Atlanta to San Francisco.
“But he’s going to put his own fling on, I’m sure. He’s got some different guys and can do some different things with the guys he’s got out there. But I imagine it’ll be pretty similar to what we’ve seen in Atlanta the last few years.”
Two 49ers players Keuchly has paid close attention to on film are running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Pierre Garcon.
“He’s solid,” said Kuechly of Garcon. “He can run all the routes; he’s physical and can make contested catches. And they’ve got some speed on the edges, as well. I think when you match guys that can catch the ball in the intermediate and underneath and guys who can run deep it helps, and when you have a run game like that it helps a lot too.”
Shanahan left Atlanta on a three-game win streak against the Panthers, and Kuechly is aware.
“They’ve got us the last three times,” said Kuechly. “He’s been creative the last three times and had something new for us every time. That’s what makes him good, you can’t dial in exactly on what he’s doing. He’s going to have some similar concepts I’m sure, a wrinkle here and there.
“But we’re familiar with him and he’s familiar with us. That’s what kind of makes it fun, is it’s who can play better. That’s what is enjoyable about this.”
Despite a Shanahan-run offense having its way with Carolina’s defense (especially its secondary) twice in 2016 as the Falcons made their Super Bowl run, the 49ers head coach indicated that he’s approaching this game with due caution.
“I know with our guys, it’s really important we protect the football, that we do stay balanced and it’s very important that our guys play their best,” Shanahan said.
“Because if you’re off for a little bit, or you’re not at the top of your game, I’ve gone against this defense too much – they can embarrass you quick.”