The Carolina Panthers were down 20-18 to an inferior opponent in the fourth quarter Sunday – playing wobbly football and looking ripe for an upset.
Then Luke Kuechly righted the ship once again. Later, he would stay in character by shrugging his shoulders and saying it was no big deal. But his 34-yard fumble return for a touchdown Sunday was the biggest play in Carolina’s scratchy 35-27 road victory over the New York Jets.
We should be used to this from the middle linebacker Cam Newton calls “Captain America” by now, and this play did have a bit of a superhero quality to it. The Panthers were in trouble – again.
Kuechly can’t always fix things, and sometimes what he does “fix” is fake (those twin babies in that commercial that he is holding for those sleep-deprived parents aren’t real, for instance).
But in this case, what Kuechly did was very real and very much needed.
It started out with Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks calling a blitz – but not for Kuechly. He dropped into coverage when Josh McCown dropped back to pass.
Defensive end Wes Horton, in the meantime, pushed inside and was nearly on Jets quarterback McCown in a flash. “I just put on the jets,” Horton said, his irony unintended. “Before McCown could even really throw the ball, I was on top of him.”
The smart play for McCown then would have been just to take the sack. But McCown, even at age 38, is very confident in his athletic ability. He was known for his pickup basketball prowess when he backed up Jake Delhomme with the Panthers in 2008 and 2009. He was a member of the same adult flag football league in Charlotte where Steve Smith once broke his arm. McCown loves to compete. He hates to give up on any play.
On this play, that was his downfall. McCown tried to throw the ball while going down to a running back, but lost it in midair as Horton slung him backwards.
Kuechly, who was about 8 yards away, spied the loose ball and sprinted toward it. It was batted at least once and he performed the old “scoop and score” defensive drill to perfection, grabbing the ball on the run and darting into the end zone for Carolina’s first defensive TD of the season.
Afterward, Kuechly was at his “aw shucks” best about the play.
“Wes made a great move,” Kuechly said. “He was in there super fast and I saw the ball pop out. ... I’m sure one of our guys was able to get a hand in there and push it out and I was just trying not to mess it up. … I think Shaq (Thompson) made a block on the quarterback and it was just clean sailing from there.”
Funny how these sorts of things always seem to happen to Kuechly, who has missed at least one game in each of Carolina’s last three seasons while in the NFL’s concussion protocol but who has played in 11 of the Panthers’ 12 games in 2017.
In Carolina’s game before this one, against Miami, Kuechly made a game-changing interception in the second quarter and then said: “The guy that made the play was Thomas (Davis). He got out there in the flat and elevated the ball and gave me some time to get out there.”
That is one of those things that his teammates love about Kuechly, who is quick to share credit and take blame. He leads the Panthers in interceptions with three and he’s going to be a Pro Bowl shoo-in once again, but the next time he brags about it will be the first time.
On Sunday, the Panthers defense really didn’t play that well. McCown picked the Panthers apart for 307 passing yards in what coach Ron Rivera said was a “rough day” for the secondary. Kuechly’s fumble recovery was the only turnover Carolina could muster.
The Panthers offense wasn’t that great, either, and Carolina needed both Kuechly’s defensive touchdown and Kaelin Clay’s 60-yard punt return touchdown to win this one.
But they won it, as good teams do, on a mediocre day. And No. 59, as usual, was right in the middle.