TAMPA, Fla. – Luke Kuechly said he wasn't thinking about forcing a fumble.
"I was like, 'Just get him down. Just get him down.'"
But instincts are what make the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year so good. He doesn't think. He reacts.
And he makes game-winning plays.
So when the Buccaneers, trailing 17-14, got the ball back with 1:36 remaining and threw the ball to running back Bobby Rainey, Kuechly locked in on his target.
"He burst out of the backfield and that was my coverage, so I had to get on my horse and get over there," Kuechly said.
Kuechly got there, and when he did, his right hand wrapped around Rainey and made direct contact with the ball, forcing it loose.
"If you shoot your hand in there, you can sometimes pick it off," Kuechly said. "A lot of the credit on that goes to the coaches who harp on that all the time."
Kuechly's timing couldn't have been better. Rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere recovered the fumble, essentially sealing what became a 20-14 victory for Carolina.
"A lot of the credit goes to Bene, who was running to the ball," Kuechly said. "We talk about that all the time. Run to the football, and good things happen. He was able to scoop it up and keep it in bounds."
After a dominant three quarters in which the Buccaneers had just 136 total yards and eight first downs, quarterback Josh McCown and the Tampa Bay offense strung together consecutive fourth-quarter touchdown drives to get back in the game.
"The couple of drives they had, we blew a couple of things, and that's what happens when you're not communicating at all," Kuechly said.
In the end, it came down to the defense making a final stand – a familiar scenario for Kuechly and Co. dating back to last season.
"I always want to be on the field at the end of the game. Maybe that's just me, maybe that's a defensive mentality," Kuechly said. "But I'm happy when the game is on the line and we are out there."
And when the game is on the line, no is surprised when Kuechly saves the day.
"We finished the game when Luke made a big play," defensive end Charles Johnson said. "That's why he's Luke."