Panthers' Kuechly has Saints' attention

METAIRIE, La. – About a month ago, when I was asking New Orleans Saints players for an ESPN poll to name the most underrated player in the NFL (outside of their own team), offensive tackle Zach Strief chose Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. But Strief quickly warned, “he won’t be underrated for long.”

Sure enough, last year’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year has been gaining more and more national attention as he has continued to rack up tackles and the Panthers

(9-3) have continued to rack up wins. Kuechly is being widely recognized as the leader of Carolina’s remarkable defensive surge and might even wind up as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.

“I think he’s everything you look for in a middle linebacker,” Strief said of the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder. “He’s instinctual. He flies around, plays with great effort, he’s tenacious. He’s got speed to cover out of the backfield. He’s got size to match up with bigger tight ends. And you know, he just seems to play with a lot of passion.”

Kuechly has 102 tackles this season after leading the NFL with 164 last year. He also has three interceptions and a sack.

He had one of his best games last season against the Saints in a Week 17 Panthers victory, with 13 tackles and two pass breakups. After doing my film study of that game, I credited Kuechly as the co-player of the game (along with tailback DeAngelo Williams, who had a monster performance) because Kuechly showed up so often in so many ways. He was even effective defending speedy receiver Lance Moore at times.

This will be the first time the Saints have seen Kuechly since that game – and the first time Saints coach Sean Payton has ever seen him in person. Payton has clearly been impressed by what he’s seen on tape, though.

“I think he’s obviously playing extremely well,” Payton said. “He’s very active. He’s around the football on every play. He’s got great instincts, great awareness. You can see him key in and diagnose formationally as well as anyone. See formations and understand what he’s gonna have to defend. He’s a great tackler. He’s playing outstanding.”

Kuechly, who was drafted with the ninth overall pick out of Boston College in 2012, is also bringing some attention back to the middle linebacker position. It’s not as much of a glamour position in today’s NFL, which is such a pass-happy league now. But Kuechly is following in the line of guys like Brian Urlacher and Patrick Willis, who have become stars by doing a little of everything well against the run and the pass.

“I think the game has changed so much from when you think back to the days of Dick Butkuses, those types of players, it was a different game,” Strief said. “You don’t hear about middle linebackers as much. But he’s a difference maker for them. And you watch a lot of games that he can kind of take over.”

The one problem Kuechly has had this season is drawing occasional flags in pass coverage (including the infamous one that got picked up when he was clearly holding Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the final play of Carolina’s Monday night victory last month). But Kuechly is still effective in coverage and may match up against tight end Jimmy Graham at times on Sunday night.

And Kuechly’s not alone. Fellow linebacker Thomas Davis is also having an outstanding season for the Panthers with 94 tackles, four sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and seven pass defenses. Davis (6-1, 235) is a converted safety.

Together, they will give the Panthers a better chance than most defenses to match up with versatile Saints weapons like Graham and running back Darren Sproles.

“Yeah, they’re fast and physical. Smart, too,” said Sproles, who said he can tell just by watching Kuechly on tape that he obviously studies a lot of film.

“Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are two of the best in the game, especially as a tandem,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.

Good linebacker play is effective in trying to slow down the Saints’ offense. They saw that last week when Seattle’s linebackers popped some balls loose in coverage and made some nice open-field stops.