In only four short seasons, Luke Kuechly has earned a number of awards, including NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and made a name for himself as one of the top middle linebackers in the game. The Carolina Panthers recognized the potential of Kuechly and locked up the linebacker with a five-year, 62 million dollar extension prior to the season.
If there was one part of Kuechly's game that could be criticized, it was his ability to drop back into coverage. He even recognized it and mentioned it as his top priority in the offseason, according to Charlotte Observer's Joe Person.
That work certainly paid off as he has played exceptionally well in coverage this year and was named the Best Pass Coverage Defender by Pro Football Focus. He finished the year with the best QB rating against for an inside linebacker at 57.8, which is 44.7 points better than the league average when quarterbacks throw at linebackers in coverage at 102.5.
The ironic part is that Kuechly's most impactful plays of the season when he was in coverage came after he was selected for the award by PFF. In two playoff games, Kuechly has two interceptions and returned both for touchdowns. Since 2003, only one player has two defensive touchdowns in a single postseason (Asante Samuel, 2006) but this is the first time in NFL history that a player has done it in consecutive games.
This postseason Peyton Manning has thrown roughly 26% of his pass attempts to his tight ends and running backs with Owen Daniels catching the only two passing touchdowns for the Broncos. The pass coverage of Kuechly is sure to come into play next Sunday during Super Bowl 50. While the Broncos' quarterback has looked better in the playoffs, he may struggle to find his checkdowns and tight ends in this one.