The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers met in Week One of the 2012 season, and it's fair to say there was some concern as to how the Buccaneers' young and restructured defense would handle Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. After all, Newton was coming off a dynamic rookie season in which he had passed for more than 4,000 yards and also scored 14 rushing touchdowns; meanwhile the 2012 opener was basically the NFL debut for linebacker Lavonte David, safety Mark Barron, Head Coach Greg Schiano and Tampa Bay's new defensive scheme.
The new Bucs did just fine, completely containing Newton on the ground, intercepting him twice and allowing only 301 total yards in a 16-10 victory. Now the Bucs and Panthers are set to do battle again, this time in Charlotte, and while Newton remains a significant concern, the more pressing storyline is how the Carolina defense is going to handle Josh Freeman and company. For the last five weeks, the Buccaneers have trotted out the most productive offense in the NFL, in terms of both yards and points, in the process winning four of their last five outings.
"They're clicking right now," said Luke Kuechly, Carolina's rookie linebacker and the player picked two spots after Barron in the top 10 of last April's draft. "They're running the ball extremely well, and once you can run the ball the offense opens up a little bit. The offensive line's been playing well. They've been getting a lot of big 'chunk' plays. I think they're one of the top teams in the league right now as far as yards per play. Doug Martin's been playing great. Josh Freeman's been playing great and has been able to get the ball downfield to some of the wide receivers."
However, things have changed a bit for the Panthers' defense, too, since Week One, and the outstanding rookie out of Boston College is right in the middle of it. Literally. After Jon Beason was forced to injured reserve in Week Five, Carolina moved Kuechly from weakside (WILL) linebacker into the middle (MIKE). It's a position the Panthers knew Kuechly could handle, but they had started him on the outside because of the presence of Beason, a three-time Pro Bowl performer.
"I played a little bit in the middle in OTAs and in camp, so it wasn't something that was going to be totally new," said Kuechly. "I just knew that I had to re-look over everything and be comfortable with it, because at MIKE you've got to make the calls and get everyone set. There's a little bit more responsibility, so I've just got to hold myself accountable and be ready to go.
"I've become more comfortable as the season's progressed. The more reps you get, the more comfortable you can be. I'm still not 100% comfortable with everything, but I'm getting to the point now where things are becoming familiar."
Wherever he has lined up, Kuechly has made plays. He had 10 stops and a pass defensed last Sunday in a loss to Denver, and he leads all NFL rookies with 87 tackles (as per NFL.com). In fact, he is just ahead of the Bucs' David in that category, and like David he has also taken on the responsibility of calling plays for the defense. Both rookies have handled that part of the game with surprising ease.
"Luke's ability to play the MIKE position is really an outstanding thing," said Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera. "He's got a great natural feel for it. He sees things left to right or right to left as well as anybody. Some guys that are outside guys can only see it one way, but he sees it and has a great feel for things. It's a lot of fun watching him. I think his leadership qualities are starting to stand out and people are beginning to see that as well."
So, will Kuechly's move into the middle make a difference when it comes to stopping Freeman and his many emerging weapons on Sunday? The Panthers actually did quite well against the Buccaneers' offense in Week One, but it's fair to say that the task has grown much more difficult since then. However, Kuechly, who had just two tackles and two assists in that game as the WILL, is going to have more to say about the outcome this time around.
"It will be good to be back in the middle and get to play a little bit more," he said. "I didn't play a whole lot the last game because we were in and out of different packages. So this week will be fun; I'll get out on the field a little bit more and get a chance to play a little more football."
As the MIKE, Kuechly's top priority is likely to be Doug Martin, the Bucs' rookie running back sensation. Though Tampa Bay's offense has shown an impressive ability to complete the long ball – those 'chunk' plays Kuechly referenced – it has also been a very balanced attack with Martin rushing for 862 yards and 5.0 yards per carry. Kuechly believes that slowing down Martin will take some of the sting out of the Bucs' passing game, as well.
"You've got to be able to stop the run," he said. "You've got to make a team one-dimensional, and they're doing a good job running the ball. We've got to make sure we're doing a good job of staying in our gaps so we can stop the run game."