In safety Kurt Coleman’s first year with the Carolina Panthers, he was 27 years old and had played in the NFL for six years.
That didn’t stop a then-24-year-old middle linebacker named Luke Kuechly, already known for his attention to detail, from coming right up to him at practice and telling him whatever he was doing wrong.
“You’re trying to do something, and he’s telling you to just go do something else. ... You’re like, ‘All right, Luke said it. You don’t deviate from it if Luke says it,” Coleman laughed after Sunday’s 17-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in which Coleman and Kuechly returned from injury and combined for 17 tackles.
Coleman didn’t realize back then that he was being watched. But he soon got used to it – and missed Kuechly all the more whenever he wasn’t hearing him communicate.
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The whole team did.
“It just makes you feel good, to see him out there,” said defensive end Julius Peppers. “I think that’s the main thing.
“Obviously the communication, and those type of things, the nuances and those things that he’s so good at, that’s a plus to having him out there. But more than anything, we just like to see him. When I see him in his uniform, it just makes me feel good. I think that’s the same for everybody in here.”
Kuechly, 26, has missed 10 games in the past three seasons after suffering concussions in each of those years.
While the Panthers have extraordinary linebackers in Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson to complement Kuechly and solid depth, there is a tangible difference in how smoothly the defense operates when he’s not on the field.
It’s almost like raising a hand to grab something, and then realizing the hand is tied down.
Getting it back is just ... easier for the entire body.
As the only defensive player with direct line to the booth where coordinators sit, Kuechly is key to recognizing what an offense will do, communicating it to the defense, getting the front lined up and then coordinating pressure. The Panthers did all that well Sunday, holding Winston to season-lows in passing yards and disrupting him and his line early and often, including seven quarterback hurries and three sacks.
“The thing that’s good about this team is that Kurt and Mike (Adams) can do a lot of that themselves in the back end,” said Kuechly, deflecting, as usual, the attention to his teammates. “Mike’s been around for forever and Kurt’s a guy that has been around a long time too. We have three layers of the defense, and everyone kind of communicates. I just try to get everybody the play, and those guys are all smart enough to know what to do.
“My job is easy. I get the call ... and try to make sure everybody knows it. Make sure the front looks right, and then I just let those guys play.”
Kuechly, who missed one full game while in the NFL’s concussion protocol, and Coleman, who missed three games with a sprained MCL, returned Sunday to lead the team in tackles (with eight and nine, respectively). Kuechly also had an interception and Coleman fell on a fumbled strip-sack to get the ball back to Carolina’s offense.
“I think the communication is probably the biggest aspect of all,” said head coach Ron Rivera. “That’s probably the one thing you miss (when they miss time), when you have guys that have been in the system – Luke has been in the system for six years, Kurt is going on three now. Those guys communicate and help to get other guys lined up on the field.”
For quarterbacks, the game within the game is to try fool Kuechly.
Sunday, against Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, was no different.
“I think I saw Winston wink at (Luke) when he called out a play,” said Coleman.
Winks, sure. But it is rare that Kuechly gets hoodwinked.
Peppers, a 16-year NFL veteran, has seen many, many linebackers in his time. But he said there only actually two players to whom he compares Kuechly – and one isn’t even a linebacker.
The first is Brian Urlacher.
And the second is Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“They all are very instinctive about the game,” said Peppers.
“And again, they all made me feel good when they put the uniform on on game day.”