Dirk Koetter on Luke Kuechly: 'He's the Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers of defense'

The Buccaneers are preparing for injured linebacker Luke Kuechly to be available for Sunday's game. Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

TAMPA, Fla. -- Luke Kuechly's status for Sunday remains uncertain, but consider Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter already on full alert for the Carolina Panthers' defensive star.

"It sounds like he'll be good to go," Koetter said. "He's one of the top players in the NFL. He's the Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers of defense. You watch when he's in there -- the offense checks, he's checking the defense, he's sliding the front. The guy's an impressive player. They've been a lot more vanilla the last 2½ games with him out. I'm sure as soon as he gets back, they'll crank it up again and do more things than they've been doing."

Kuechly, a two-time Pro Bowl player, has been absent since sustaining a concussion in a Week 1 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. He didn't participate in practice Wednesday, and Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Kuechly remains in the NFL's concussion protocol.

Still, the Bucs know what they'll face if Kuechly makes an appearance.

"Luke Kuechly is as good a mike linebacker as there is playing the game, if he's able to go," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "I know he's been out with an injury. You want to see great players in the league not be out because of injury. But if he chooses to not play this weekend, we'd be all right with that, too."

There's a reason why. The Bucs know about Kuechly's torment all too well. He had nine tackles, one sack and one forced fumble in a victory over Tampa Bay in Week 1 last season. He followed that with six tackles, one interception and one pass defensed in the Panthers' win over the Bucs in Week 15.

"They're a whole different defense with him out there," Bucs center Joe Hawley said. "He's very smart. He gets them in the right looks. He's good at checking defenses to what he sees, and you can tell he watches a lot of film. He's just a step quicker than most linebackers. He gets to the ball quicker. So we need to make sure we know where he's at the whole time."

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston will become well-versed in a hurry, if necessary. A week after facing Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, another decorated threat might await the rookie.

"Another great player, man," Winston said of Kuechly. "One of the best players in the league."