Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had a good day Monday, a day after an awkward hit against Jacksonville left Kuechly unsteady on his feet and put him in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
“I’ve talked to him,” Rivera said. “He looks like Luke to me.”
But Kuechly still has to undergo a series of neurocognitive tests, beginning Tuesday, to determine whether he’ll be available to play against Houston this weekend.
“There are steps to the protocol he has to go through and every day is a different step. (Monday) was to come in and see how he is, and he’s fine,” Rivera said. “(Tuesday) he’ll go through the next step, which he’s going to have to take the baseline test, and then that’ll be examined by the doctor.
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“So as he goes through the process – each step – I’ll have to give you an update. But (Monday), the only thing I was told is he’s OK.”
We’re not going to put Luke out there until he’s ready to go. We’re going to go through the protocol the way it’s designed.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera on linebacker Luke Kuechly, who suffered a concussion Sunday
NFL players are given a baseline neuropsychological exam during their preseason physicals, which is used as a guide when a player sustains a head injury. Kuechly must remain at his pre-concussion levels to progress through the protocol, a three-step process that does not lay out a specific timetable for players to return to action.
Kuechly will have to be cleared by an independent neurologist as part of the final step before getting back on the field.
A player’s concussion history also plays a factor. Rivera said he’s uncertain whether Kuechly has had previous concussions.
Kuechly was unavailable for comment Sunday and Monday. Players who suffer a concussion are not allowed to speak to the media until medically cleared.
Rivera said the Panthers would be cautious with Kuechly, as they would with any of their players in the concussion protocol.
“We’re not going to put Luke out there until he’s ready to go,” Rivera said. “We’re going to go through the protocol the way it’s designed. That’s what we’ve done with all of our players. Each step gets cleared, each hurdle gets cleared, then we’re going to put the player on the field. But until then he’s not going to play.”
Kuechly was injured after a short completion to Jaguars rookie running back T.J. Yeldon late in the second quarter of the Panthers’ 20-9 victory. Kuechly, who was initially covering tight end Clay Harbor on the play, turned to tackle Yeldon.
As he prepared to wrap up Yeldon, Kuechly ducked his head. His helmet struck Yeldon in the chest. The awkward collision caused Kuechly to stumble a couple of steps backward and fall to the ground.
When Kuechly tried to stand up, his legs gave out and he fell back to the turf as trainers ran on the field to evaluate him.
“Those happen sometimes. You get caught in weird situations,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “He’s a good tackler and I’m sure that’s going to continue to be the case going forward. It’s just one of those bang-bang plays.”
Luke was pumping the guys up. We knew then that he was OK and I think that helped the players just emotionally and mentally.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott
Teammates say Kuechly had the wherewithal to yell words of encouragement as he walked off the field, slapping hands with linebacker Thomas Davis and safety Roman Harper as he did so.
McDermott said Kuechly then addressed the defense at halftime.
“Luke was pumping the guys up. We knew then that he was OK and I think that helped the players just emotionally and mentally,” McDermott said. “He got them up and got them where they needed to be to come out in the second half and start off on the right foot.”
Third-year linebacker A.J. Klein played well after replacing Kuechly. He had a tackle on his first play in the game, and finished with six stops.
McDermott said Klein’s game-week preparations paid off.
“When you walked through the halls last week, 6 or 7 o’clock at night, and A.J. Klein’s here,” he said. “So the success he had was no accident.”
Klein, who knows all three linebacker positions and also plays special teams, says his approach to Sunday’s game was no different than any other.
“As a defense we drill doing our job,” Klein said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m playing outside backer, inside backer or if I go in and play nickel for some reason. Do your job and do everything in your power to be in the right place.”