Carolina Panthers

Why Panthers can’t just put Luke Kuechly in bubble wrap until regular season begins

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was adamant Tuesday about two things:

He was never seriously injured when he missed a couple of practices last week; specifically, he was not in the NFL’s concussion protocol.

He needs the chance to hit and be hit in preseason games to be ready for the regular season.

Kuechly will be held out of Thursday’s first preseason game in Chicago, as will quarterback Cam Newton, according to coach Ron Rivera. Prior to Rivera’s announcement, Kuechly said he hoped to play. He missed a couple of practices last week after a pileup on Wednesday.

Kuechly has suffered three concussions over his previous seven NFL seasons. The coaches have been careful in training camp about not putting veterans such as Kuechly, Newton and new center Matt Paradis at risk physically before games that count begin in September.

But Kuechly said he’s got to get enough snaps — as in collisions — over four preseason games to be ready for the regular season. Practices — which don’t typically involve a lot of full-speed hitting — don’t suffice, he says.

“You can’t tackle people out here” in practice the way it is in a game, Kuechly explained. “I think there’s a big difference between running by a guy (with the ball) and tagging off, and tackling someone. You’ve got to do it once or twice (against another team) to get the feel for it. You’ve got to get one (hit) inside and another in space.”

So while Kuechly won’t play against the Bears, he’ll lobby for snaps in at least one or two of the remaining three preseason games (starters usually sit out the final one) before the Panthers open at home against the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 8.

“I’m a guy who feels like he needs a practice during the week during the season and in the preseason a couple of tackles to make sure I remember how to play football,” Kuechly said.

Nearly 1,000 tackles

A six-time All-Pro player, Kuechly has been exceptionally productive since being the No. 9 overall pick in the 2012 draft. He is known to be studious — elite at anticipating opponent tendencies and taking efficient angles — but ultimately his job is to launch himself at the ball-carrier.

His versatility means he’s hardly ever out of games when the defense is on the field. The concussions illustrate all the mileage on his body from nearly 1,000 NFL tackles.

Is Kuechly NFL “old?” .

“It depends on who you ask,” Kuechly said jokingly. “If you ask (rookie) Greg Little, I’m an old guy. So just ask the older guys who I am, and I’m in good shape.”

The Panthers medical staff pulled Kuechly out of a practice a week ago after what Rivera described as a pileup. Kuechly wanted to return, but was convinced otherwise. The following day, he had a previously scheduled veteran day off. He was slowly worked back into first-team drills in practices Sunday through Tuesday.

“I got hit, like, weird on the side. It’s all good,” Kuechly said of injury that knocked him out of practice. It clearly rankles him to be restricted.

“I’ve been in timeout for a little while,” Kuechly said. “I get bored (watching practice). I think football is fun. I enjoy being out there.”

Change

This training camp isn’t just repetition for Kuechly or any of the defensive players. After years of playing mostly a 4-3 front, the Panthers are moving to a more diverse scheme that will be heavy in 3-4.

Kuechly has said that doesn’t radically change what he does, but the personnel and placement of linemen in front of him is certainly new.

“It’ll be fun” to test this against an opponent, Kuechly said. “The (Panthers) offense has seen it since OTAs (off-season drills). Everyone starts trying to figure each other out a little bit.

“Now, we get a chance to go play against somebody else. The energy will be higher, guys will be excited. It’ll be a fun deal.”

Even with Kuechly sitting in timeout.

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