Each week the Carolina Panthers play in 2018, the Observer will choose a potential gamechanger — the player most likely to make a huge impact on the game. This week’s choice:
Linebacker Luke Kuechly
Why he’s motivated: For all Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly has accomplished in his career — all the tackles, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and so much more — there’s one feat he’s never been able to replicate.
Two interceptions, one game.
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The only time he’s done that? Thanksgiving night three years ago, when the Panthers stomped the Cowboys 33-14 to move to 11-0. He brought one of those back for a touchdown.
The history: Dallas and Carolina have not met since that Thanksgiving game, but they will Sunday at Bank of America Stadium to begin the 2018 season.
What does Kuechly remember from the previous meeting?
“It was a good game for us, we started off fast,” Kuechly said Wednesday. “That was a couple of years ago, so they’ve changed some stuff. They still have some stuff that’s pretty similar. But they’ve got more pieces this year that they didn’t have back then.
“It’s a different team, just like we’re a different team.”
It’s true. The main players from that 2015 Dallas offense — tight end Jason Witten, receiver Dez Bryant, and quarterback Tony Romo — are all gone. In fact, it was Thomas Davis’ hit on Romo in the third quarter that re-broke the quarterback’s collarbone and effectively ended his career.
The setup: Instead of Witten, Bryant and Romo, Kuechly will line up against an entirely different type of threat in third-year passer Dak Prescott and star running back Ezekiel Elliott.
And while the opposing players are different, Kuechly’s role isn’t. With Davis suspended for four games, Kuechly will have to control the center of the defense. That means stifling the explosive Elliott in the running game and preventing him from finding space to shake defenders, but also interrupting Prescott’s passing lanes and covering receivers down the seam.
What the Cowboys say: Coach Jason Garrett, who also was coach the last time these teams met, knows firsthand the damage Kuechly can cause.
“I’m not big on comparing players, but anybody who’s been around this league will tell you he’s as good a defensive player as there is,” Garrett said. “He’s just a fantastic football player. His preparation is off the charts. He’s just one of those incredibly instinctive guys — he’s always around the ball in the running game, he’s always in the throwing lane in the passing game.
“Certainly one of the best defensive players in the league.”
What Kuechly says: An interception by Kuechly, or maybe two, would change the complexion of the Panthers’ opener, and Kuechly knows it.
“You look at stats across the league and turnovers are huge in the percentage of winning (teams). That’s always a goal of ours,” Kuechly said. “Anytime you can get your offense a possession in the plus territory off a turnover, it’s big.”
Kuechly has already proved that against Dallas once. Sunday, he’ll get a chance to double down.