During the pregame show before Thursday night’s game, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said he wouldn’t be surprised if Luke Kuechly wins the Defensive Player of the Year award at some point.
That point might be coming a lot sooner than even Gruden expects. If Kuechly plays all season the way he played in the Carolina Panthers' 34-27 preseason victory against the host Baltimore Ravens, he could be a shoo-in for the award.
Preseason or not, Kuechly turned in one of the most dominating defensive performances I’ve ever seen. He was all over the field from the start, which isn’t unexpected for a guy who was Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. But Kuechly turned in a second quarter that was beyond spectacular.
Kuechly forced a fumble by running back Bernard Pierce. Fellow linebacker Thomas Davis jumped on the loose ball and slid into the end zone to give the Panthers a 21-7 lead with 10:22 left in the first half.
A few minutes later, Kuechly popped the ball loose from Ravens receiver Aaron Mellette and safety Charles Godfrey seemed to intercept the pass. But Kuechly was called for a penalty and the interception was nullified.
It didn’t matter. Two plays later, Kuechly came up with an interception of his own to set up a field goal that gave the Panthers a 24-7 halftime lead.
Some other observations on the Panthers:
Kuechly wasn’t the only defensive star for the Panthers. Cornerback Drayton Florence returned an interception 71 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter.
Defensive back D.J. Moore also had an interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who were quiet in the first two preseason games, had a big impact. Short produced a sack and Lotulelei, who also recorded one, looked good as a run-stuffer.
The defense wasn’t the only unit that was explosive. The special teams also came through. Ted Ginn Jr. returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
It’s a good thing the defense and special teams were so productive because the first-team offense didn’t look very good. The Panthers had to punt the first three times they touched the ball and the first offense never got into much of a rhythm. But I don’t think fans should panic about the offense. I think the Panthers are keeping things very basic in the preseason.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn suffered an apparent hand injury in the third quarter and did not return.
Running back Armond Smith was ejected in the fourth quarter for kicking a Baltimore player. That's not going to help Smith's chances of making the roster.