CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu lined up behind the center in the Wildcat formation on third-and-1 from the Carolina Panthers' 22-yard line on Sunday. Quarterback Matt Ryan split out wide right.
A trick play.
Luke Kuechly didn't bite. He came hard up the middle and threw Sanu for a 4-yard loss, forcing the Falcons to kick a field goal.
"He studies film like no other," Fox Sports analyst Greg Jennings said on the telecast. "He studies film like a quarterback. He knows exactly what he's looking for."
Kuechly makes it look routine -- so much that it's hard for teammates and coaches to pick out individual plays that stand out more than others.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who will face the Panthers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) at Bank of America Stadium, isn't surprised. He has been following Kuechly's career since the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year starred at St. Xavier High in Cincinnati.
His first memory of Kuechly actually was as a teammate with his son, Marcus Lewis, on a summer lacrosse team. Lewis later met with Kuechly before the 2012 draft process began at the request of Bengals owner Mike Brown.
Lewis shared that story with his staff on Wednesday.
"I told him he was the best collegiate linebacker I'd seen at that point," Lewis said of Kuechly, then at Boston College. "He hasn't disappointed me."
Lewis never got a shot at drafting Kuechly, whose 839 tackles are 57 more than any player in the NFL since 2012. The Bengals had the No. 17 pick but Carolina got the 2011 Lombardi Award winner at No. 9.
Now coach Ron Rivera compares Kuechly to some of the greatest middle linebackers of all time, such as Hall of Famers Brian Urlacher and Mike Singletary.
Lewis wouldn't dispute that.
"All he's done is taken his athleticism and brought it to football," Lewis said of Kuechly, who played lacrosse just so he could do something physical during a down time from football. "We're trying to clone guys like Luke Kuechly here."
Good, bad and ugly
Rivera summed up the run defense in the 31-24 loss to Atlanta in one word: "terrible."
But even as things were going haywire in terms of gap control and discipline, defensive coordinator Eric Washington praised Kuechly.
"He was a guy that kept trying to keep everybody together, communicating with the coaches, myself, talking to the secondary and making sure we did everything we could to limit the damage and put ourselves in position to win the football game," Washington said.
Kuechly had eight tackles, two for losses, against Atlanta to officially bring his season total to 21 -- fourth best in the league. The Panthers, after reviewing film, tacked two more on to that total.
The 27-year-old's success is a combination of athleticism, awareness and film study. Few, if any, in the league study more, as Jennings noted.
"He understands [the game] better than anybody I've ever been around," Rivera said. "Luke's understanding is phenomenal."
Kuechly was so focused on football and athletics in general growing up that he was too busy to attend Bengals' games. When he wasn't involved in sports, he was hunting and fishing with his dad and two brothers.
His dad, Tom, told ESPN.com in 2014 before the Panthers played at Cincinnati that Kuechly's competitiveness spilled over into fishing. He labeled that the "good, the bad and the ugly of Luke" as he recalled a fishing trip to Tom's parents' home in Florida.
"There is a lake right outside of their place," Tom said at the time. "John and Luke were out fishing. Luke came in, then stood at the window and watched what was going on outside. Pretty soon he says, 'I'm going back out to go fishing.' My dad said, 'What's that all about?' I said, 'He's got to make sure he stays ahead of John.'"
Defensive end Wes Horton got the sack.
"I was right there," Kuechly said almost defiantly. "I just have to make it."
Kuechly's goal this season is to improve as a pass-rusher. He's the only player in the NFL with at least five forced fumbles, 10 sacks and 15 interceptions since 2012, but he has never had more than three sacks in a season (2014) and he has only 4.5 the past three seasons combined.
Part of that is because Kuechly drops into coverage far more than he blitzes. Another reason is he's so busy making tackles.
His next tackle -- the Panthers have credited him with 953 from coaches' film -- will move Kuechly past Mike Minter into second place behind Thomas Davis (1,174) for the team's all-time lead, and that's in just over seven seasons.
"His suddenness is just incredible," Lewis said.
Kuechly's anticipation, said nickelback Captain Munnerlyn, is "off the charts."
"I don't even think Luke has cable in his house," Munnerlyn said. "He just studies a lot of film. It's always football, football. He wants to win that championship and be the best linebacker to play the game."
Munnerlyn couldn't pick a favorite Kuechly play because there are so many. Defensive tackle Kawann Short's favorite Kuechly play was, actually, two.
It happened in a 2015 Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas when Kuechly picked off quarterback Tony Romo on consecutive plays, returning the first for a touchdown.
"That was just unbelievable," Short said. "They were going no-huddle. We were right back on the field. I was like, 'This guy's motor.' I don't know if he takes unleaded, premium. Just his motor, man."
Quarterback Cam Newton calls Kuechly "Captain America," so when Carolina's super hero went down with what was called a "hyper-extended knee” in the fourth quarter against Dallas in Week 1, there was a hush over the stadium.
When Kuechly returned the next series, the hush was on the Dallas sideline.
"He's just a great football player and [always] has been," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "All you have to do is flip the tape on to see that. He's just all over the place. He's really well prepared. He's very instinctive, so that's just the way he plays and we recognize that. It was important to try to do some misdirection stuff to get him off the game."
It didn't work. Kuechly had six tackles after the first two series, leaving Munnerlyn almost in a state of shock.
"I was like, 'Wow!'" he said.
Kuechly treats each play he makes like it's supposed to happen. He's not even aware when he's living up to the nickname he earned in college, the "tackling machine."
"Sometimes you get in the flow of the game," Kuechly said. "Sometimes the plays come to you, sometimes they don't. The key is when they come to you, you've got to make them."
Lewis isn't surprised Kuechly makes most of them. His biggest question to Kuechly before the draft was if he could afford to play at home if the Bengals drafted him, knowing the ticket demand from family and friends would be incredible.
"Just love everything about him," Lewis said. "Everybody [here] is very proud of Luke."