If Luke Kuechly’s man-hug in the end zone against New England tight end Rob Gronkowski was evidence of the Carolina Panthers middle linebacker’s need to improve his pass coverage, Exhibit A of that improvement came in the second half last week against Seattle.
The Seahawks were within 10 points and driving with 2:11 remaining in the divisional-round game when slot receiver Doug Baldwin ran a post-corner route and was open along the Panthers’ sideline.
Kuechly recognized the route and trailed Baldwin by a step or two before extending his body and knocking away Russell Wilson’s pass with his right hand to thwart a 20-yard completion.
The Seahawks ended up settling for a field goal, and Thomas Davis’ onside kick recovery secured the 31-24 victory that sent Carolina to the NFC Championship Game against Arizona.
Kuechly said he probably would not have made the play early in his career.
But Kuechly has come a long way from the young player who often struggled in coverage, particularly when running downfield with a tight end or receiver.
A big change
Pro Football Focus named Kuechly its best coverage defender at all positions.
According to the analytics site, quarterbacks had a passer rating of 57.8 when throwing to Kuechly’s area, the best mark for a linebacker. Linebackers gave up an average 102.5 passer rating this season, according to PFF.
“He’s got great instincts, but he can run. He’s really fast,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said of Kuechly. “What he really is, he’s a great pass defender. People see all the tackles, but they do a great job of keeping him clean, to make the tackles. But he’s a great pass defense guy.”
Kuechly was an instinctive, one-man tackling machine when he arrived in the NFL in 2012 as a first-round draft pick from Boston College.
He led the league in tackles in two of his first three seasons, and joined Lawrence Taylor as the only players to win Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player in consecutive seasons.
But if there was a weakness, it was his pass defense.
His pass interference penalty keyed Buffalo’s game-winning drive in the Panthers’ Week 2 loss in 2013. In a Monday night game against the Patriots that same season, an official threw a flag for a pass interference penalty against Kuechly after he made contact with Gronkowski in the end zone.
But officials waved off the penalty, sealing the Panthers’ victory and prompting Tom Brady to yell at an official as he left the field.
His top priority
Kuechly said after that season that improving his coverage was his top offseason priority.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he wouldn’t have called Kuechly’s coverage a weakness necessarily, but it was something Kuechly has worked on with defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and linebackers coach Al Holcomb.
“Really a part of it too is just who he is,” Rivera said. “He thinks it’s one of his weaknesses. He felt that way so he went out and improved on it and got better.”
Kuechly had a career-high 13 pass breakups in 2014, and this season he tied his career best with four interceptions. Two of those came on consecutive passes by Tony Romo against Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, starting with an interception he returned 32 yards for his first career touchdown.
Kuechly scored his first postseason touchdown last week when he picked off Wilson’s first pass of the game and ran untouched for a 14-yard touchdown that gave the Panthers a 14-0 lead.
Kuechly correctly said defensive tackle Kawann Short deserved the credit for the pick-six against Seattle for pressuring Wilson and forcing him into a bad throw.
Evidence of the leap
But it was Kuechly’s play against Baldwin late in the game that best exemplified the leap he’s made as a pass defender.
Kuechly’s speed and athleticism helped him make the play, but his preparation played a big role as well. During his film study Kuechly had seen Seattle run the same route concept in its wild-card win at Minnesota, albeit with a different receiver.
“Once I see (Baldwin) running it that way, then I know he most likely is going to go out based on those guys that have run it previously to him and what I have seen during the game,” Kuechly said. “I think a lot of it comes with repetition early on. I don’t think I’d have picked it up as well as that.”
It’s unclear whether nickel back Cortland Finnegan, who was lined up across from Baldwin, recognized the route. Kuechly appeared to yell at Finnegan after breaking up the pass.
Kuechly likely will have to help Finnegan and the other defensive backs again this week against the Cardinals’ high-octane passing offense, which features quarterback Carson Palmer, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and several other big-play threats.
Kuechly says he looks at film and sees areas where he can still get better in coverage.
But he’ll get no complaints from Rivera.
“He’s a very good coverage linebacker. He does a really nice job,” Rivera said. “It does help us in different situations. There are several other really good cover guys in the league, but he does rank up there right with those guys.”