Ron Rivera: Panthers LB Luke Kuechly can take game to 'next level'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here’s a scary thought: Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly can play better than he has during his first four NFL seasons.

Coach Ron Rivera hasn’t issued a challenge for the three-time Pro Bowl selection to improve the way he did Cam Newton after the quarterback’s MVP 2015 season.

He doesn’t have to. Kuechly always is looking for ways to improve.

But Rivera has no doubt that Kuechly, whose 620 tackles are more than any player in the NFL since 2012, can take his game to "the next level."

The same for Newton.

"Everybody says, ‘What’s their next level?’" Rivera said. "I’m honestly not sure what it is, but I can see improvement."

The improvement in Kuechly since training camp began has come in the pass rush. You probably won’t see it during the preseason games, because the Panthers don’t want to give away their plans.

But you can see it in practice the way Kuechly attacks the line, the way he goes one-on-one with running back Jonathan Stewart in pass-rush drills.

"I’m excited about it," Rivera said. "For the most part he’s a downhill blitzer. When you’re a downhill blitzer, you tend to run into people. What you have seen is him try to evolve and learn to get on the edges, attack edges, and counter.

"That’s the biggest thing, especially when we do the one-on-one stuff. You see him more on the edges. You see him try to counter and go opposite."

For all Kuechly has done, he has only seven career sacks. He has more interceptions (11).

So Kuechly made it his goal during an offseason in which he is coming off shoulder surgery to improve his pass rush just as he made it his goal last offseason to improve in coverage.

"Just consciously thinking about it," Kuechly said. "That’s the biggest thing. You can’t just run in there and expect to get to the quarterback. There’s good backs, there’s good protection that is designed so it’s not easy to get there.

"A lot of it is technique. A lot of it is going in there with the mindset to what my plan is going to be an executing that plan when you get into that situation."

Rivera has no doubt that Kuechly will get better at getting to the quarterback because the former first-round pick out of Boston College always is striving to improve.

"That separates the really, really good ones," he said. "They’re always looking to improve. The ones that are comfortable, the ones that think they’ve arrived ... he doesn’t. Cam Newton doesn’t."