In Week Eight, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers met for the first time in 2017, the Buccaneers had the ball to start the second quarter, down 7-0. The first play featured several bits of misdirection before Jameis Winston threw a short screen pass to Jacquizz Rodgers.
The play started with wide receiver Bernard Reedy coming through the middle on a fake end-around, Winston waved the ball in his direction, then immediately faked a handoff to Rodgers, turned and looked to his right, where Reedy had run into the flat. Winston then turned suddenly and threw a quick pass to Rodgers, who was heading to his left and about to bend around a two-on-one block of Bucs linemen Ali Marpet and Kevin Pamphile on defensive tackle Kyle Love.
The play appeared to fool 10 of the Carolina defenders, or at least direct them to the parts of the field where the Buccaneers wanted them. Unfortunately, the 11th Panther on the field was Luke Kuechly.
Just returned from missing one game due to a concussion, Kuechly proved to be the biggest problem for a Buccaneers offense that would finish the game with a season-low three points and come up more than 100 yards short of its per-game average at that point. The Panthers' perennial Pro Bowler – and the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year – would record eight tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery, but his impact on the game was arguably larger than that.
On the play described above, Kuechly quickly read Winston's pass and, from the middle of the field, charged in Rodgers' direction. Pamphile, Marpet and Love were in the way but Kuechly quickly scraped around the pile, cut off Rodgers' lane and wrapped up the back for a five-yard loss when he tried to change directions.
Earlier this week, Kuechly got his fifth straight, and fully expected, Pro Bowl nod. Surprisingly, he was the only Panther, on a 10-4 team, selected for the all-star game. That said, Kuechly is probably the most deserving Panther; on a team full of very good defensive players, he's the one that makes that fifth-ranked unit work.
"First of all they do a really good [job] schematically; I think they are fairly simple until you get to third downs," said Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "But I think they've got an unbelievable leader – [a] savvy, aware linebacker that makes them start with that. From there, they've got a lot of really good players. I think they had one Pro Bowler … but when you look at them, collectively, it's not like you are staring at holes. You can play some other teams where, 'Wow, they've got two, three or four really good players, but the drop-off between the next guy [is significant].' No, they throw 11 guys out at you and say, 'Okay, we've got 11 darn good football players. That's what makes it hard. [They are] really well coached, do a great job and they send out a really good group of people."
The Buccaneers and Panthers are set to contest their 2017 rematch this Sunday in Charlotte, and if their two seasons have diverged since that meeting eight weeks ago, one thing hasn't changed a bit: Luke Kuechly is still Tampa Bay's number-one problem when on offense. And the biggest problem that Kuechly poses to the Buccaneers isn't his size, speed or fierce tackling. It's his mind.
"There are a lot of good physical players who can run fast and hit hard and cover, but the thing that just separates him is his 'quarterback-on-the-field' mentality," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "They've been in this system so long and the guys around him know him – he can audible. He can audible a defense. Very few defenses do that, but based on your formation or hearing what the quarterback says or seeing how your O-Lines pointing, he can make audibles at the line of scrimmage, and that's just something that no other teams that we play on a consistent basis do."
That puts the onus on Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who is engineering a strong finish to his third season after it was marred in the middle by an injury to his throwing shoulder. In the three weeks since he's been back in the lineup, Winston has tied for the league lead with seven touchdown passes, thrown for nearly 290 yards per game and had a passer rating of 109.0 that ranks second in the NFL in that span.
Winston had his least productive (full) game of the season in Week Eight against Kuechly's squad, although it's clear in retrospect that his shoulder wasn't right at the time. He threw for 210 yards and no touchdowns and was picked off twice. His passer rating was a season-low 49.2. What Winston has to do in order to keep his numbers on the rise in this second go-around with the Panthers is to counter Kuechly's knowledge with his own.
"A couple weeks back we were talking about how people said our offense was predictable," said Winston. "When you play a guy like Luke Kuechly, he is going to tell you what the play is. He knows what is coming. Your job is to beat him. He is going to be who he is. He is an amazing player. I love playing against him, so it's going to be fun. But, we've got to do what we do. One person can't be able to determine how we are on offense. We've got to play because we know that defense over there is really good, so we've got to do our job."