Carolina Panthers

A pick-six triple play? Panthers’ Luke Kuechly looking for one Sunday

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) heads to the end zone for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in the first quarter of their NFC Divisional game at Bank of America Stadium on Jan. 17.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) heads to the end zone for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in the first quarter of their NFC Divisional game at Bank of America Stadium on Jan. 17. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Two weeks ago, Luke Kuechly became the first player in NFL history with a pick-six in consecutive playoff games.

Could he make it a hat trick on Sunday in Super Bowl 50?

“I don’t know. We’ll see what happens,” Kuechly grinned. “That would be awesome but I’m going to have to work really hard to get one this week.”

A third consecutive game with an interception returned for a touchdown for Kuechly would come at the hands of Denver quarterback Peyton Manning.

Manning had 17 interceptions this season, which led the league deep into the season before he missed several games because of a foot injury. But he hasn’t thrown an interception in the three games since returning from the injury.

Of those 17, three were returned for touchdowns, and Kuechly and the rest of Carolina’s defense are looking for a fourth.

They installed their game plan last week in Charlotte, and this week in the Bay Area they have refined it. Kuechly has continued to watch game film trying to pick up on the slightest Manning tendency.

“Last week you got the groundwork of what we were going to do on defense and you can pick up a lot last week,” Kuechly said. “But it’s a two-week window and you’ve got to take advantage of it. You’re concentrating on something specific you’re not able to do in a normal week of practice. But the two-week window gives you an opportunity to maybe spread some things out.”

Attacking the middle

In the later years of his career, Manning has been attacking the middle of the field rather than outside the numbers. His multiple neck surgeries have severely decreased his arm strength.

Because of his immobility, lack of overall talent along the offensive line and his weaker arm, Manning looks more in the middle.

“I think it is important to use all of your experience to your advantage,” Manning said this week. “Certainly I have some physical differences with the years I have played, certainly since my major injury four years ago. I think it is about learning to adjust, learning to adapt.

“Using the baseball analogy, the guy that used to throw 95-plus as he gets older, maybe he can’t still throw that same fastball, but he can work the corners of the plate and still strike a guy out. I feel like I can still move the chains. Maybe in different ways. That is being flexible and being able to adjust. I think that has served me well.”

Kuechly’s house

The middle of the field is, of course, where Kuechly roams.

Kuechly’s 11 interceptions since coming to the league in 2012 are the most among all linebackers in the NFL.

“That’s where he likes to attack and you’ve got to do a good job of making sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to do,” Kuechly said. “He does a good job with his run fakes. He does a good job with the play actions. And for me I have to make sure whatever my job is, do it.”

Kuechly did his job and more with the two pick-sixes this postseason. The first came early in the Seattle victory when Kuechly intercepted Russell Wilson. Wilson was being pressured by Kawann Short and threw a quick pass to Marshawn Lynch, who was just turning around out of his route.

The second came late in the Arizona victory when Kuechly intercepted Carson Palmer at the 22 and scored.

“They had run that route earlier in the game, I had seen it the week in practice in tape and film,” Kuechly said. “I had seen it a couple of times and once he (John Brown) sat down that was my guy so I went right to him and I was able to make a play in the right spot.”

Now he has an opportunity for another. Kuechly, always modest, credited his defensive line with helping him get those interceptions.

But with Manning getting the ball out faster than almost any other quarterback this season, Kuechly will have to earn an interception this week.

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

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