If that was a modest beginning for Kuechly, it was nevertheless the beginning, and it turned out to be the start of something pretty special. Kuechly's stat line became less and less ordinary as the season went along (and especially after he moved to middle linebacker in Game Five), to the point that by season's end he was the NFL's leading tackler and the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year.
That four-stop game in Tampa in Week One last year would prove to be the most meager statistical output of Kuechly's career…until last week.
Playing against the visiting St. Louis Rams and their 30th-ranked offense on Sunday, Kuechly contributed just three solo tackles, plus a pass defensed. A glance at the final box score would suggest that the Rams had little to worry about from the man in the middle of the Panthers' defense. The truth, however, is that the Rams were very worried about Kuechly, and that's exactly why he finished with a career low in tackles. Just 22 games into his NFL career, Kuechly received the kind of treatment that essentially confirmed his status as a start player in the league: The opposing team made him the primary focus of its game plan.
Not long after the St. Louis game started, the Panthers' defensive coaches noticed that their talented defensive linemen were getting quite a bit of one-on-one blocking treatment. That was because the Rams were making a point of getting some of their blockers to the second level in order to try to take the Panthers' linebackers – and especially Kuechly – out of the play.
It worked, if the goal was to specifically keep Kuechly from making the tackle. However, the Rams lost 30-15 and surrendered four sacks while rushing for just 63 yards.
"Last week, we played against a team that wanted to make sure that they blocked our linebackers, so they left our front four pretty much one-on-one, and we were able to win several of those," said Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera. "It took away Luke’s ability to make a lot of plays. And then we’ve played other teams that stayed on the doubles a little bit longer and Luke was able to run sideline to sideline. I think, anytime you have a front four that can impact a team’s offense, it really does impact the way your linebackers play. If they’re making plays upfront, Luke’s going to get an opportunity to make plays. And it’s a good thing, it really is. It takes a lot of pressure off of him. It gives him an opportunity to really control and run things. He’s done a great job, though. He really has. He’s done a lot of good things for us, and really, with him, it’s just getting the opportunities.”
Last year, Kuechly finished with 164 tackles, 16 more than the second-place defender, Minnesota's Chad Greenway. This season, through seven weeks, Kuechly is tied for 31st in the league in that category and is on pace to finish the year with 128 stops. That represents no downturn in Kuechly's play; rather, another influx of defensive talent through the draft has made it so Kuechly doesn't have to make every tackle. In particular, rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have added a lot of bulk and playmaking ability to the middle of the line.
“Those guys do such a good job a lot of times [and] me and [linebacker] Thomas [Davis] can run around free and they’re in there," said Kuechly. "They’re good at penetrating. Last game those front four, the two inside guys and Colin Cole played great. They had a bunch of tackles, a couple TFLs and sacks. Those guys have come in and handled everything very professionally and have been quick learners and are willing to work after it. They’re just great guys that are willing to work hard and win games."
Kuechly may be the glue of Carolina's defense – and, obviously, the focal point for some opposing offensive coordinators – but the entire defense is improved around him in 2013. Carolina stands third in yards allowed and second in points allowed so far this season, and it is the only team in the NFL to rank in the top five against both the run and the pass. Again, Kuechly thinks this overall improvement has a lot to do with the play of the defensive line.
“The front four, they play big upfront and like I said when those guys play well, it kind of opens up everything else where you can keep a guy deep," he said. "You don’t necessarily need to bring guys down in the box if those guys up front are playing well. If you’ve got a good front group of guys that makes everybody job a lot easier. We’ve got a bunch of guys in the two-deep in that front four that has been doing a great job for us.”
Kuechly and his fellow Panther defenders were apparently joking on the sideline on Sunday about the linebackers unusually skinny stats line. While Kuechly would undoubtedly trade stats for victories, and the Panthers have won three of their last four to move into second place in the NFC South, there's no doubt that he'll be needed to make many big plays if the team is to keep winning. That might not have been necessary on Sunday when the Rams decided to pick a different poison, but when he gets his next chance to make a play, Kuechly will be ready.
“I just think you have to play aggressive, you can’t sit back and wait for stuff to happen, especially on defense. You have to go out there and get it and make plays. Each game you've got to play every play, every down, every snap, because you never know when that one or two plays is going to be.”