Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly didn’t know who was behind him, grabbing his waist and chest and arm, and it didn’t matter.
The Panthers’ best defender and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year was ejected near the end of the third quarter of Sunday’s 38-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers for flinging his left arm near back judge Steve Freeman.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know who was grabbing me,” Kuechly said after the game. “I was trying to get out of there a little bit. You’ve just got to stay calm in those situations and walk away.”
It was the first disqualification in Kuechly’s NFL career, and after the game several teammates and his coach came to his defense.
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“The kid reacted to someone grabbing him back by the neck, pulling him out of the pile, and then somebody grabbing him by the waist,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The guy that grabbed him by the waist just happened to be the referee. That is why he reacted. He thought another player was coming in to grab him, so unfortunately, that is what happened.”
Kuechly was being pulled out of a pile by Packers tight end Richard Rodgers II after an Eddy Lacy 11-yard rush. Rodgers had Kuechly underneath his arm pulling him out of the pile.
As Rodgers released, Kuechly got up, but Freeman came up behind Kuechly trying to restrain him. Kuechly then flailed his arm and elbow at Freeman, narrowly missing him.
“You just felt somebody grab you on the back,” Kuechly said. “It’s an emotional game, but you’ve just got to walk away from the situation and you can’t let that happen.”
Backup linebacker Ben Jacobs finished the game at middle linebacker.
Nelson’s big play: Safety Roman Harper and cornerback Antoine Cason expressed regret for their roles in giving up the 59-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson in the first quarter.
Cason played underneath Nelson, who ran along the sideline. Cason tried to undercut the route and make a play on the ball, but Rodgers’ placement was too good and Cason fell to the ground as Nelson made the catch.
“I just have to help our coverage from the start of the play,” said Cason, who entered the game as one of the worst cover corners in the league according to Pro Football Focus. “He kind of got a free release, and that’s what stresses our safety. That’s what I can’t do.”
On the back end, Harper had to deal with one Packers player running a route down the middle and Nelson running along the sideline. When he saw Rodgers look to Nelson, he started to make his break.
“Being from where I was coming from, maybe I just got to take more of an angle toward him and let him think he can outrun me,” Harper said. “Then you can use the sideline. He’s made that play a lot of times against a lot of other people. It’s one of those things you do – you look back at it. It’s all about angles and milliseconds.”
Injury update : Rookie guard Trai Turner left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury and did not return to the game.
He said the injury happened in the pile but didn’t know exactly how. He was in a protective boot after the game.
“I haven’t heard too much,” Turner said before turning to optimism. “I don’t think it’ll keep me out too long. One of those precautionary things and get back to work tomorrow.”
Starting left tackle Byron Bell injured his elbow in the second half and did not return. Receiver and returner Philly Brown suffered a concussion in the second half and did not return. Linebacker Jason Williams injured his groin.
Rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin finished with three catches for 61 yards and a touchdown after being cleared in the concussion protocol this weekend. Benjamin was listed as questionable to play, though he said he knew Friday afternoon he would suit up.
He said his head pain “wasn’t bad at all” after Monday.
“I had a headache Monday, but that was it,” said Benjamin, who suffered a concussion on a hit by Vontaze Burfict in last week’s tie against Cincinnati. “We went through the protocol, took the tests, saw the doctors, and I was great.”
Bersin not thrilled : Charlotte Latin graduate Brenton Bersin became the first former Wofford receiver since Jerry Richardson to catch a touchdown pass in a regular season game.
Bersin finished with three catches for 21 yards, including his 1-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter from Derek Anderson.
He still couldn’t be too happy, though.
“It was awesome getting in there and catching a couple of balls at the end, but in the end we were getting our butt kicked,” Bersin said. “It’s never fun. Even going out there, catching the ball and scoring my first touchdown I didn’t really have fun doing it. It sounds weird, but when you get beat like that it’s demoralizing.”
• Packers star Aaron Rodgers is playing like the best quarterback in the NFL. He has an 18-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, his hard count fooled the Panthers multiple times and he’s gone six games without throwing an interception.
• The Green Bay faithful were into the game even in garbage time. They got loud when the Panthers had a third down with Derek Anderson in at quarterback.
• It was a one-in, one-out line for the Packers’ team stores inside the stadium before the game.
• Roman Harper had an interception negated by an offside in the first quarter, but that ball would have never been thrown by Rodgers had he not had a free play.
• Tight end Greg Olsen quietly put together an eight-catch, 105-receiving yard game. He caught every pass thrown his way.
• Carolina still leads the NFC South by 11/2 games. The NFL has had just one team with a losing record make the playoffs in its history, NFC West champion Seattle at 7-9 in the 2010 season. Think of the NFC South race like being chased by a bear: You don’t have to be faster than the bear; you just have to outrun your buddies.
By the numbers
192 Consecutive passes without an interception for Aaron Rodgers, the second-best mark in Packers’ history.
50:21 Game time elapsed before the Panthers scored a touchdown.
12 Replay challenges lost by Rivera in his coaching career, with just three wins.
5.3 Yards per pass play for Carolina.
9.3 Yards per pass play for Green Bay.
• “There is nothing better than a noon victory at Lambeau Field. The crowd in pregame was electric. Our players fed off it. The importance of getting a fast start was clearly an emphasis.” – Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy.
• “We will get things right and be prepared for the Seattle Seahawks.” – Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.
• “We had 21 first-quarter points, so we made them pretty one-dimensional, which we wanted to do, especially the way Cam ran the ball last week.” – Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
• “We have to find a way to start winning ball games. I don’t know how to put my finger on it or what it is. But we can’t keep hurting ourselves.” – Carolina safety Roman Harper.