Carolina Panthers

Chess match: Panthers LB Luke Kuechly vs. Broncos QB Peyton Manning a pre-snap battle of wits

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is a student of the game like few others, but in Super Bowl he faces the master.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is a student of the game like few others, but in Super Bowl he faces the master. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly spent the week off between the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl 50 not only watching tape of Peyton Manning, but listening to the Broncos quarterback as well.

Kuechly is a noted film junkie who had to be booted out of Bank of America Stadium on Christmas Eve 2014 by Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

But studying Manning and his myriad of pre-snap calls, checks and bluffs was a perplexing, all-sensory experience for Kuechly, who kept the audio on.

Just when Kuechly thought he’d detected a pattern to Manning’s hand gestures or his ubiquitous “Omaha” calls, Manning would mix things up and send Kuechly back to square one.

“Maybe one time he’s saying this word and I’ve seen it two or three times, and it’s right, it’s right, it’s right.’ And then the fourth time it’s wrong. You’re like, ‘Well, that’s done now,’” Kuechly said. “I just try to really concentrate on what am I doing. He’s got all the checks. He’s got all the movements and gestures. You can’t worry about that too much because that’s part of his game.”

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called Manning a “master at the line of scrimmage.” But if there’s a player capable of defeating Manning’s Jedi mind tricks it’s Kuechly, who’s ability to pick up opponents’ plays and tendencies and exploit them is evident every Sunday.

So if you’re looking for a game within a game Sunday in Santa Clara, watch the cat-and-mouse routine between Manning and Kuechly. Manning could check in and out of a couple plays, with Kuechly countering with one or two defensive adjustments before Broncos center Matt Paradis snaps the ball.

“That’s the neat part about it. Not everybody has that type of player that we have in the middle of our defense,” McDermott said. “At the same time though we need Luke to be able to just play, too. There’s a balance.”

Still sharp of mind

Manning, 39, will become the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, surpassing Broncos general manager John Elway, who won back-to-back Super Bowls with Denver in 1997-98 to close his career.

Age and neck surgeries have greatly diminished Manning’s arm strength. He threw nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 10 regular-season games after missing six because of a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot.

Manning’s body might be breaking down, but his mind remains sharp. His knack for reading defenses and getting the Broncos into more favorable matchups has helped Denver’s offense do just enough in playoff wins against Pittsburgh (23-16) and New England (20-18).

“The whole arm strength thing, I don’t as much see that. What I see is a master at the line of scrimmage. A guy that gets them in good plays and checks them out of bad plays, based off of what he’s seeing,” McDermott said.

“I know (Steelers coach Mike) Tomlin a couple weeks ago talked about he’s as good as he’s ever seen at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes you kind of get carried away with that and you get away from what you’re doing. So we’ve got to find that balance of making sure we keep our identity and we’re technique-sound and sharp in what we do – and also smart.”

A deep appreciation

Kuechly, a three-time Pro Bowler in his first four seasons, doesn’t like talking about himself. But his eyes lit up last week when asked whether, as a student of the game, he appreciates Manning’s nuance.

“That’s who Peyton is and he’s done it for a long time. I think that’s why he’s so great,” Kuechly said.

“He’s not just a guy that gets under center and has the play and he runs the play. That’s not him. He’s going to line up. He’s going to figure out the defense. He’s going to use a hard count. Once he gets the hard count and gets a look that he likes, he’s going to switch stuff. It’s fun to watch.”

Kuechly is much the same way.

In a Thanksgiving Day win at Dallas, Kuechly intercepted Tony Romo on consecutive snaps, returning the first 32 yards for a touchdown. On that play Kuechly and outside linebacker Thomas Davis heard Romo audible at the line, and Kuechly checked into a different coverage.

Kuechly scored on a interception in both playoff games, helping the Panthers continue a trend from the regular season. Carolina, which led the league in takeaways, interceptions and turnover margin, forced seven turnovers in the NFC Championship Game against Arizona, including six by Carson Palmer.

“You see just a fast, physical football team that’s created a lot of negative plays for offenses. They’ve created a lot of turnovers, given (their) offense a lot of short fields,” Manning said. “As you watch the game unfold and you see the scoreboard, it’s 7-0, it’s 14-0. It’s like the guy singing the national anthem is still on the field and the game hasn’t started yet. They feed off each other is what you kind of gather from the film.”

One of Kuechly’s best plays this postseason was not an interception but a pass breakup of Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Kuechly was able to sniff out Doug Baldwin’s post-corner pattern because it was a similar route Kuechly had seen another Seahawks receiver run on film.

Inside his head

But trying to crawl inside Manning’s head is another matter.

McDermott doesn’t want Kuechly to suffer from information overload this week trying to figure out Manning’s signals and calls. He’d rather see Kuechly play loose and instinctual.

And while Kuechly is looking forward to the chess match with Manning, he knows he has to pick his spots.

“You never know what he’s checking or what he’s doing. Maybe he’s checking nothing, maybe he’s checking from pass to run or something like that. So at the end of the day, what’s your job?” Kuechly said. “If there’s a check within the defense that allows you to do that, you can do it. But if not, you’ve just got to try to line up and do your job.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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