The Force Is With This One

A handful of Steelers played against Luke Kuechly in college. The rest watch his tape with admiration, and even awe.

The Carolina Panthers aren't just quarterback Cam Newton.

Not by a long shot.

No, the Panthers rose to elite status last year on the strength of a defense that ranked second against the run, second in fewest yards allowed, and second in fewest points allowed.

Over the last two seasons combined, the Panthers rank fourth in the NFL against the run and fifth overall defensively.

Remember those good ol' days, Steelers fans?

Yes, while the Steelers were finishing up their era of elite defensive standing, the Panthers ranked 24th overall in the 2010-11 seasons combined.

The seemingly abrupt change in the Panthers' defensive rankings over these last few years is due mainly to the drafting of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly with the ninth pick in 2012.

The NCAA's No. 2 all-time leading tackler (532) in only three seasons at Boston College, the Cincinnati-born Kuechly came to the NFL with the following names attached to the awards he received after his junior season: Dick Butkus, Vince Lombardi, Bronko Nagursky, Ronnie Lott and Jack Lambert.

Yes, there IS a Lambert Award for linebackers, but it's not likely Jack made a personal visit to Boston College to hand Kuechly his trophy the way Butkus did.

"I played against him," Steelers tight end Rob Blanchflower said of UMass's 45-17 loss to Boston College in 2011. "I just remember being very impressed with Kuechly and how good of an athlete he was, always making plays, coverage, blitzing. He was good at everything."

"I don't remember too much," Steelers running back Dri Archer said of Kent State's 26-13 loss to Boston College in 2010. "But I know we had a big game plan for him. He was just like he is now, but he's even better now."

"He's a great player," said Steelers linebacker Sean Spence. "Him being in the ACC I saw him play a lot. I had a chance to play against him. He's everything that everybody says."

Spence came out the same year as Kuechly, and Spence was the NCAA's all-time No. 2 man in tackles-for-loss. He's an instinctive tackler who flows to the ball with diagnostic skills that may have only been topped in his draft class by Kuechly.

"He gets it," Spence said. "He gets through the trash great. His instincts are off the charts. He's just a great player, man."

Spence was asked if Kuechly had made a memorable play in Boston College's 24-17 win over Miami in 2011.

"Yeah, he picked us off and went home," Spence said. "He had a pick six against us. But you know just his overall game, man. He always finds the ball. And it seems like every time he's around the ball, he makes the tackle and the ball comes out."

Or, as Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley put it, "He finds his way to the football, and the football finds its way to him."

That stunning collegiate productivity has carried over to the NFL for Kuechly. He was named the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year and last year was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Only seven others -- including Lambert and Joe Greene -- have won both.

"Luke Kuechly is quite simply one of the best in the business," said Mike Tomlin. "I think he is legitimately in the argument of a J.J. Watt in terms of some of the most exciting young football players in our game. There’s nothing that he can’t do. He is good at blitzing. He is good versus backs when he gets on running backs. Backs have a problem from a protection standpoint. He is a sideline-to-sideline tackler. He has innate instincts. He can slip blocks. He can defeat blocks physically. He is great in the passing game in zones and man. There is really nothing he can’t do. He doesn’t have many holes in his game as a linebacker."

"And you've got Thomas Davis right next to him," said Haley. "Those two are really the cornerstone of the defense as you watch on tape. They're in the middle of the action down in and down out. Up front they have a great rotation. But I would say it starts with 59 in the middle."

Davis, the weakside OLB in the Panthers' 4-3, leads the team with 22 tackles, with Kuechly trailing by three. Last season, Kuechly made 176 tackles to lead Davis and the rest of the team by 25.

As a rookie, Kuechly made 205 tackles, according to the Panthers.

"He's just one of those guys who's flying around," said Steelers guard David DeCastro. "The ball's snapped and he's already where the ball is. His nose knows where the ball's going before it's even snapped.

"Yeah, he's pretty special. It'll be fun to play him. I'm looking forward to it."

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