Carolina Panthers

NFL’s best defender could again be Panthers LB Luke Kuechly

Luke Kuechly preparing for the Saints

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly discusses the team's next opponent the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
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Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly discusses the team's next opponent the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

Luke Kuechly’s 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year trophy sat in a box for several months before he finally found a space for it in his parents’ home in Cincinnati.

As a heads up, maybe he and his folks should find a spot for No. 2.

The Carolina Panthers’ middle linebacker is one of three unofficial candidates for the annual award given to the top defensive player in the league. And in typical Kuechly fashion, he’s not concerned about it.

“No, I just want to win,” said Kuechly, who won the fourth NFC Defensive Player of the Week award of his career on Wednesday. “That’s all I care about right now.”

Competing with Kuechly for the prize is Houston defensive lineman and reigning winner J.J. Watt along with Carolina teammate Josh Norman, and all three have compelling cases.

Watt, who’s probably the most dominant defensive lineman since Reggie White, is on track for his third 20-sack season. Norman had four interceptions and returned two for touchdowns before quarterbacks essentially stopped throwing his way.

We did not account for a player playing significantly better than the best we’ve ever seen, and that’s exactly what Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is doing.

Pro Football Focus

And Kuechly has been so good that he’s broken the scales for football analytics site Pro Football Focus. PFF rates players on a scale of 0-100, taking into account the play of every NFL player since 2007 and even leaving room for a player to perform slightly better than they have yet seen.

Kuechly has a rating of 104.9.

“We did not account for a player playing significantly better than the best we’ve ever seen, and that’s exactly what Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is doing,” PFF wrote. “He’s playing so well that it has broken the scale to our 0-100 system.”

With the three games he missed because of a concussion in the rearview, Kuechly has dominated in run defense with 75 tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles.

But where he has improved most is his pass defense. When he won the award in 2013, he was knocked for deficiencies in his coverage – most notably the hug on New England tight end Rob Gronkowski that went uncalled in the Monday night win against the Patriots.

So Kuechly has worked with linebackers coach Al Holcomb to shore that up.

“With Luke, you tell Luke what he needs to work on and he’ll work on it,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “You know Luke. If it’s a weakness he’s going to make it a strength, and he’s been working very hard at it. Again, you’ve got to give credit to his coaches who are really helping him and for him to be coachable.”

Kuechly’s two interceptions against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving – which, it turns out, was the most-watched NFL game of the season with 32.5 million viewers – helped Kuechly’s candidacy. While fans loved his first interception because he returned it 32 yards for a touchdown, football junkies salivated at his play recognition.

On second-and-13 from the Dallas 17, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo saw outside linebacker Thomas Davis show a blitz when he gave a hard count. Romo checked at the line, and Davis looked to Kuechly to see if they should change coverage.

Kuechly decided to check into cover-2 and made a lassoing-like gesture to the defense. Romo took the snap and looked for receiver Terrance Williams. Kuechly seemed to be covering tight end Jason Witten running up the seam, but when he saw Williams’ dig, he left Witten and broke on that route to intercept the pass.

“Once I saw how the route opened up, I had an idea what was coming,” Kuechly said. “You see it during the week and you see it on tape, so when it happens in a game it’s cool.”

New Orleans coach Sean Payton, whose Saints host the Panthers on Sunday, called him the best inside linebacker in football.

“He brings so much to the table,” Payton said. “His key in diagnosing, his instincts. If you line up in the same formations against him, he’s going to call out the play before your quarterback does.”

Traditionally, the Defensive Player of the Year award goes to a defensive end or linebacker. Seven of the past 10 winners have been at one of those positions.

Watt has 13 1/2 sacks this season on a surging Texans team that could sneak into the playoffs. One more 20-sack season and he’ll have one-quarter of all the 20-sack seasons in NFL history.

Panthers defensive end Jared Allen had 22 sacks in 2011 and finished second in voting to Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs. He understands the value of a 20-sack season, but he also knows how much weight is put on the kind of performance Kuechly is putting on.

“The year I had 22, our team was 3-13. I took second to Suggs. I think it encompasses an overall effect on your team,” Allen said. “Individual stats are going to matter, but I also think it’s a bigger deal on how you raise the level of play around you. Look at what Ray Lewis did. He wasn’t just a great defensive player, he raised the level of everybody, and Luke does that for us.

“When you think of dominant players, you bring everybody else to that level and it really shows how good you are.”

But Kuechly doesn’t even have to look to Houston to find competition. He can just look across the locker room at Norman.

Norman is essentially erasing the opponent’s top target and a side of the field with his stellar play this season. In fact, quarterbacks have such a low rating throwing at Norman that they’d be better off throwing it into the turf, according to PFF.

“I’d be happy either way,” Norman said. “I don’t want to say there’s a rivalry between me and him. Any time you can have two people on the same team going for the defensive player of the year award, you’re doing some really good stuff. That’s so big they can’t even explain how big it is. Right now I’m not even realizing until probably the end of the year.

“I’m just going to go out and work as hard as I can to beat him and I’m pretty sure he’s going to work as hard as he can to beat me. And at the end, bygones will be bygones.”

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

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