Kuechly at Center of Panthers’ Defense, Center of Packers’ Game Plan

Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the NFL in tackles since entering the NFL in 2012.

Ron Rivera knows what a great linebacker looks like.

Three decades ago, he was a linebacker with the Chicago Bears. The centerpiece of one of the finest defenses ever assembled was Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary.

So, Rivera’s praise of his middle linebacker, All-Pro Luke Kuechly, shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“Luke has this great innate ability as far as his first step,” Rivera said during a conference call on Wednesday to preview Sunday’s showdown against the Green Bay Packers. “His first-step quickness is about as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. I think he is a true student of the game. He’s one of those guys that really gets in early and leaves late and spends a lot of time in the film room. He shares a lot of that information with his teammates. He loves football. He loves everything about the game and he works very hard at it.”

Kuechly is the most productive linebacker in the NFL. Since entering the league as a first-round pick in 2012, Kuechly leads the NFL with 519 tackles, according to the official press-box stats. The Colts’ D’Qwell Jackson is next with 490, followed by Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David with 487 and the Colts’ Jerrell Freeman a distant fourth with 426. He led the NFL last season as well as his rookie season.

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According to the coaches’ film review, Kuechly holds three of the top five spots in franchise history, with his 205 stops in 2012, when he was named Defensive Rookie of the Year, and 176 tackles in 2013, when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, taking the top two spots.

Limiting Kuechly’s impact will be paramount as the Packers attempt to get their sputtering offense back on track against one of the best defenses in the NFL.

“He has great range side-to-side,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He’s a very active guy. A good tackler. They got two great backers in their sub defense; him and Thomas (Davis) have been doing it for a long time at a high level. They’re very athletic and hectic guys, and (they) make a lot of plays.”

Kuechly missed three-and-a-half games with a concussion sustained in the season opener. In his three games back in the lineup, he was credited with 14 tackles vs. Seattle, 11 tackles vs. Philadelphia and 14 tackles in Monday night’s overtime win vs. Indianapolis. In that game, his interception set up the game-winning field goal.

“It’s kind of cheesy but his effort just on every play is like he’s flying around sideline to sideline,” center Corey Linsley said. “He’s fast as hell. He’s a great tackler. He’s the linebacker that you want in the middle of your defense.”

Kuechly’s impact was seen vs. the run in the last three games. Against Seattle, Marshawn Lynch averaged 3.2 yards per carry. Against Philadelphia, DeMarco Murray averaged 3.6 per carry. Against Indianapolis, Frank Gore averaged 3.2 per carry.

Green Bay will need to get him blocked so its run game, which ranks sixth in yards per carry, can provide necessary balance.

“He’s very instinctive. His instincts are great,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “Same things with Davis. Just very smart players, very quick to react and make sure that they’re in the right spot.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.

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