CHARLOTTE – Luke Kuechly has both literally and figuratively been smack-dab in the middle of the Panthers’ base defense since early in his rookie year, and in that role he’s racked up more tackles than anyone else in the NFL.
Now, with the Panthers moving from a 4-3 defense and “to a little bit of a 3-4 base” as head coach Ron Rivera called it Tuesday, Kuechly and Shaq Thompson will split the difference between the middle of the field.
Still, you just know Kuechly will be in the middle of everything.
“I mean it’s stupid to think that he’s not going to fit,” Rivera said. “We’re not really disrupting anything he does.”
Rivera is confident that Kuechly has the ability to make the adjustment, and right on cue Kuechly came up with an interception on the first play Tuesday when the Panthers kicked off their second week of organized team activities.
“There’s been a lot of good ball production, which is fun to see,” Kuechly said, in typical Kuechly fashion actually referencing how the secondary has been performing rather than referencing his interception. “We’re off to a good start.”
It’s a fresh start in some ways, and one that on paper could lead to more tackle opportunities for Thompson and fewer for Kuechly. But production across the defense has always been what Kuechly is about, and he believes the new look on defense could produce better outcomes for a unit that slipped to 15th in total defense and 19th in scoring defense last season.
“What we can we do to help ourselves?” Kuechly said. “And I think this gives us that opportunity, especially with the new guys that we have and all the speed.
“Guys are adjusting well. There is a lot new stuff we have going in. It’s been fun. I think it’s going to be good for us.”
Rookies like pass rushers Brian Burns and Christian Miller would face a steep learning curve regardless of what defensive sets the Panthers employ, but now Kuechly is learning right along with them. At the same time there’s no better teacher than Kuechly, who paces the league in tackles with 948 based on press box stats since entering the league in 2012.
“It’s a little different, but there are a lot of the same principles,” Kuechly said. “There’s new spacing, new run fits. The ball hits in different spots. Those are the things you’ve got to get used to a little bit, but it’s still football. A lot of principles from the previous defense have carried over.”
Both Kuechly and Rivera disputed the suggestion that three-man fronts equal less penetration in front of Kuechly and therefore less room for Kuechly to run free.
“He’s going to have guys who are space eaters,” Rivera said. “It’s a matter of semantics is the best way to put I guess.”
Added Kuechly: “It’s good. We’ve still got plenty of guys in front of us to penetrate.”
Such physical components won’t be added to the equation until pads go on at training camp, but OTAs are helping Kuechly and Co. transfer the new concepts from the meeting room to the practice field.
With the first game that counts about a hundred days away, time is on the Panthers’ side.
And so is Kuechly.
“Right now we don’t have the stress of the season – it’s really an opportunity to learn,” Kuechly said. “We’re just worried about improving.”
View all the photos from Tuesday's OTA practice session.