NFL Nation: Luke Kuechly

Carolina Panthers season report card

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
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Head coach Ron Rivera summed it up best when he said instruction manuals aren’t written on how to handle seasons like the Carolina Panthers had in 2014.

Quarterback Cam Newton missed the season opener with fractured ribs, then sat out at Week 15 victory after breaking two bones in his lower back during a car crash. Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy spent the final 14 games on the commissioner's exempt list, awaiting the resolution of his domestic violence case. The offensive line and running backs corps were decimated by injuries, leading to a 1-8-1 stretch.

But because the NFC South was so down, the Panthers made the playoffs with seven wins. They won a wild-card game before losing at Seattle in the divisional round.

MVP: Tight end Greg Olsen. Throughout a season of inconsistency for the team, Olsen exemplified consistency on the field while dealing with his 2-year-old son's heart condition. There were times when Olsen actually left the field during practice to be with his family in the hospital. Despite that, he had a team-best 84 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns to make his first Pro Bowl. He was among the league leaders at his position all season in catches and yards. His numbers would have been even more impressive had he not had to stay in to block when the line was being revamped due to injuries.

Best moment: For the team it would have to be the 41-10 victory at New Orleans. At a point when the rest of the NFL had given up on the Panthers, they put together their best game of the season. But to me the best moment was when backup quarterback Derek Anderson, forced to start a late-season game against Tampa Bay when Newton was injured in a car crash, did Newton's trademark first-down point as a tribute to his teammate after running for a touchdown. It showed the next-man-up mentality and tightness of the locker room that kept this team moving forward in hard times.

Worst moment: Newton's scary car crash was one. On the field, it had to be a 31-13 loss at Minnesota when the Panthers had two punts blocked and returned for touchdowns in the first half. Other than the blocks, Carolina outplayed the Vikings in a game it needed to win coming off a late-season bye. The breakdowns epitomized the inconsistency of the special-teams unit and the team in general before its late-season run.

2015 outlook: As badly as things went at times, the future looks bright. Seven rookies started in the final two regular-season games and played well, which should lessen the urgency to sign big-name free agents to fill gaps. The defense that finally came together after a midseason loss at Green Bay returns almost all of its key pieces, most notably two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly. The offense also returns intact with the biggest question mark being whether to re-sign left tackle Byron Bell, which seems unlikely. The salary-cap situation isn't nearly so dire, either, giving the Panthers room to sign Newton long term and add much-needed pieces such as a left tackle and a speedy receiver.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tight end Greg Olsen isn't normally the go-to person for comments on the Carolina Panthers' defense, but in this case he was spot on.

"Unbelievable," Olsen said after Saturday's 27-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC wild-card game at Bank of America Stadium. "That has to be one of the greatest playoff performances in history. It's ridiculous."

It was ridiculous. And it was history.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly, Kerwynn Williams
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers' Luke Kuechly was in charge of a defense that held the Cardinals to 78 yards -- a postseason record.
The Panthers set an NFL playoff record by holding Arizona to 78 yards -- eight fewer than the Cleveland Browns gained against the New York Giants in a 1958 postseason game.

To put that in perspective, three times during the regular season, Carolina gave up more yards on a single play.

Granted, as coach Ron Rivera noted several times afterward, Carolina caught Arizona at a "good time" because the Cardinals were down to their third-string quarterback making his first playoff start.

But had the Cardinals started the water boy at quarterback, holding them to 78 yards still would have been impressive.

"I've been around some teams that played good defense," said wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who spent three years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and seven with the New York Jets before signing with Carolina during the offseason. "What they are doing right now is unreal."

That the Panthers entered the playoffs with a losing record (7-8-1) no longer is a topic of conversation. How far they can go in the playoffs with a defense that in the second half had three sacks and two interceptions and held the Cardinals to 13 yards -- minus-1 rushing -- now is front and center.

"If we keep playing defense the way we've been playing, and as long as we have No. 1 [Cam Newton] behind the center, we have a chance to do whatever we want," Cotchery said.

Newton earned his first playoff win, which on most days would be the big headline for such a high-profile player. But Newton was average at best; he completed 18 of 32 passes for 198 yards, two touchdown passes and an interception. The interception led to a touchdown that gave Arizona a 14-13 halftime lead. Newton's second-half fumble could've led to another Cardinals score, if not for Luke Kuechly's interception in the red zone.

"I thought it had its moments," coach Ron Rivera said of Newton's performance.

They were few and far between.

The defense, on the other hand, consistently had moments -- big ones. To be fair, that unit has been playing winning football for nine games. It has just been ramped up a notch during a five-game winning streak.

"That's championship football right there," Newton said.

It begins with Kuechly, the NFL's leading tackler this season. Carolina's middle linebacker had a team-best 10 tackles, an interception and a tipped pass that turned into another pick to keep the Cardinals from capitalizing on two late turnovers.

"I know [Houston's] J.J. Watts is a great player," Olsen said. "But you can't find a player that impacts a game in all areas more than Luke."

Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, simply is getting more help now than he got earlier in the season, when there were frequent breakdowns during a seven-game winless streak.

The front four is smothering the run and getting pressure on the quarterback and has collected 10 sacks in the past two games. Defensive end Charles Johnson in particular has taken his game to a new level. He had two sacks Saturday after missing Friday's practice to be with his ailing grandmother in the hospital.

"Everything we've gone through this season has brought us to this point," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said.

The Panthers will play at Seattle on Saturday or Green Bay on Sunday in the divisional round. This is not the same Carolina team that lost to both during the regular season -- 13-9 to Seattle and 38-17 to Green Bay. It's definitely not the same defense. The addition of more speed to the secondary -- thanks to cornerbacks Josh Norman and Bené Benwikere, as well as safety Tre Boston -- has had a huge impact.

This unit has hit on the right mixture and chemistry at the right time. That the offense continues to pound opponents with the run game -- 188 yards Saturday, six shy of the average the previous five games -- also is reason for optimism.

But on this day, even the run game was overshadowed by the defense.

"Holding them to [78] yards?" Olsen said. "Playoff football against that team, we'll take it."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 27-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC wild-card game at Bank of America Stadium:

What it means: The Panthers advanced to the second round of the playoffs thanks to the two things that turned their season around: defense and a strong running game. They held Arizona to an NFL playoff-record-low 78 total yards in a game that wouldn't have been close were in not for a couple of turnovers the Cardinals turned into touchdowns. As they have throughout what is now a five-game winning streak, the Panthers displayed a strong running game (188 yards). That and a smothering defense that also forced three turnovers is the formula that traditionally works in the playoffs. Carolina has both working well.

Stock watch: Quarterback Cam Newton finally won a playoff game, but he didn’t have the performance that lifted his stock. He spent much of the first half throwing off his back foot and forcing the ball into tight coverage. It bit him late in the half when cornerback Antonio Cromartie intercepted a pass and ran it back 50 yards to set up Arizona’s second touchdown. Newton had two third-quarter touchdown passes, but one was a 39-yard screen to Fozzy Whittaker that barely crossed the line of scrimmage and the other was a 1-yard pass to fullback Mike Tolbert with the defense stacked to stop the run. Newton did enough things to beat the Cardinals but will have to be much more efficient for the Panthers to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

Wild card: Special teams have been an adventure for the Panthers all season and continued to be on Saturday. Brenton Bersin muffed a punt that led to an Arizona touchdown at a time when Carolina was in complete control at 10-0. The Panthers gave up a 48-yard kickoff return late in the first half that kicker Graham Gano kept from being longer. Then this group made the play of the game, forcing former Carolina player Ted Ginn Jr. to fumble a kickoff that was recovered at the Arizona 3.

Game ball: It easily could have gone to running back Jonathan Stewart with 123 yards on 24 carries. But the Panthers won because of defense, and it starts with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He led the team in tackles with 10, had an interception with about 12 minutes left at his own 4 and the outcome still in doubt, and a tipped pass that resulted in another pick.

What's next: The Panthers will play next Saturday at Seattle if Dallas beats Detroit on Sunday. They will play next Sunday at Green Bay if Detroit beats Dallas. They lost to both during the regular season, 13-9 to Seattle in Charlotte and 38-17 at Green Bay.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott told reporters to be patient when his unit was ranked 28th in the NFL. He reminded them it's a 16-game season and not to judge the product too early.

He was right.

The Panthers (7-8-1) enter Saturday’s NFC wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals (11-5) ranked 10th in the NFL in total defense, the third-straight year McDermott’s unit has achieved a top-10 ranking.

[+] EnlargeSean McDermott
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsDefensive coordinator Sean McDermott shuffled the secondary at midseason and the changes paid dividends, particularly in December.
The recipe, while it took a while to get here, is the same as last season: stop the run, pressure the quarterback with four down linemen and force turnovers.

During their four-game winning streak, opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 22.2. Only the defenses of the Texans (15.2) and defending Super Bowl champion Seattle (15.6) have been better.

That is the recipe for success in the playoffs. Since 2006, according to ESPN Stats & Information, all but two of the Super Bowl champions were ranked in the top 10 in opponent quarterback rating. Five were ranked in the top five.

Defense is big reason the Panthers are favored against a team with four more wins. Defense is a reason they have a chance to advance.

The turnaround began nine games ago. But it didn’t fully take until four games ago when Carolina added more speed in the secondary with a pair of rookies -- Bene' Benwikere replaced Melvin White at corner and Tre Boston replaced Thomas DeCoud at free safety.

And don’t forget Josh Norman emerging as a cornerback with shutdown capability.

Since then all the pieces have fallen into place in terms of getting pressure with the front four and forcing turnovers.

The Panthers have 14 of their 40 sacks and nine of their 26 forced turnovers since the overhaul of the secondary.

“I will just say this, the pass rush and the play of the secondary go hand in hand,’’ defensive tackle Colin Cole said when asked why the front four seems to be so much more effective lately.

A year ago,, the pressure applied by the front four was credited with the strong play of a relatively new secondary. This year the revamping of the secondary has played a big role in the front four finally getting back on track.

“A lot of it has to do with the personnel and the personnel getting comfortable,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “When I was in San Diego, in the middle of the season we went from, I think, 26th to 14. We’ve gone from 28 to 10. It speaks very well to the coaching job that’s been done, but also to the development of our players.’’

ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory following the 2002 season, said McDermott deserves more credit than he’s received.

“They might play the game on defense with as much effort as I’ve seen all year,’’ he said. “Dallas and Carolina have two of the great effort defenses in the tournament.’’

It begins with linebacker Luke Kuechly in the middle. Arizona coach Bruce Arians called him the “best middle linebacker in football.’’

“But I think as a group they understand their defense extremely well,’’ Arians added.

The loss of defensive end Greg Hardy before the third game hurt. Last year’s sack leader was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list until the conclusion of his domestic violence case is resolved, which won’t be until sometime in 2015.

Carolina spent the first seven games giving up big plays, uncharacteristically losing gap control. Rivera and McDermott both said at the time players were trying to do too much to replace Hardy and the mistakes were fixable.

McDermott had to use blitzes to apply pressure, which made the Panthers even more vulnerable.

Now that the group has added speed and begun playing with stronger fundamentals, the numbers support the effort.

The Panthers have used four or fewer pass-rushers 31 percent of the time in the last four games. That number was 20 percent in the first 12 games.

Opposing quarterbacks had an average quarterback rating of 80.1 against Carolina in the first 12 games compared to 22.2 the last four. Their completion percentage has dropped from 68.8 percent to 58.1. Their ratio of touchdowns-to-interceptions has gone from 12-7 to 1-5.

The Panthers have sacked or put opposing quarterbacks under duress on 32.5 percent of their dropbacks in the last four games. That ranks second in the NFL.

In their first 12 games, that number was 22.5 percent to rank 28th in the NFL.

As a result the Panthers have allowed only 43 points (10.75 ppg.) during this four-game stretch. Only Seattle with 33 has allowed fewer. Carolina ranked 29th in points allowed (27.8) over the first 12 games.

“Right now we’re doing a much better job of executing the game plan,’’ outside linebacker Thomas Davis said.

And the man putting together the plan is the same person that said not to judge his defense prematurely.

Another good call.
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster


Luke Kuechly, LB, second Pro Bowl selection: There never was a doubt the reigning NFL Defensive Player would make the team for the second straight year. He leads the NFL in tackles with 145 and continues to draw raves as the best middle linebacker in the game. The only question about Kuechly is how many Pro Bowls he’ll be selected to before the end of his career.

Who he beat out: San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. Both battled injuries this season, so that opened spots for other players, but not Kuechly. He would have made it regardless.

Greg Olsen, TE, first Pro Bowl selection: Long overdue. His career-high and team-high 82 catches are tied for the most by a tight end this season. His 981 receiving yards rank second among tight ends. If he’s lacking in one department it is touchdowns, with only six. But few, if any, tight ends have been more valuable to a team or more consistent than him.

Who he beat out: Chicago’s Martellus Bennett, who was tied with Olsen and New England’s Rob Gronkowski for the NFL lead in receptions by a tight end. He also had six touchdowns, like Olsen.


Thomas Davis, OLB, no Pro Bowls: Davis has put together three consecutive stellar and complete seasons that compare to any outside linebacker in the NFL. He has 96 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. But because he plays in a 4-3 scheme and not a 3-4 scheme in which the outside linebacker typically collects double-digit sacks, he gets overlooked. Davis isn’t asked to get sacks. He’s asked to make tackles and play in coverage. He does that exceptionally well. Standing next to Kuechly, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, also gets him overlooked.

Who he should have beaten out: Kansas City’s Tamba Hali. His six sacks are his lowest total since 2008 and five fewer than he had last season. His 57 tackles are 39 fewer than Davis.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Perhaps it was a sign things are starting to turn in favor of the Carolina Panthers.

Coach Ron Rivera had won only three of 16 career replay challenges heading into Sunday’s 19-17 victory the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He appeared set to lose another when he challenged what appeared to be an apparent incomplete pass by Josh McCown early in the fourth quarter.

Instead, the officials reversed the call and ruled that McCown lost the ball before his arm began coming forward, and that the quarterback basically batted the ball downfield about 20 yards.

The Panthers (5-8-1) didn’t get the return for a touchdown that strong safety Roman Harper lobbied for after forcing the fumble that cornerback Bené Benwikere recovered.

But they did get the ball at the Tampa Bay 27, and it led to a 45-yard field goal that gave them what turned out to be a much-needed 19-10 cushion.

Rivera didn’t take credit for throwing the red flag that for the most part since 2011 would have gotten better use dusting furniture. That all went to “the guys upstairs.”

“They kept yelling ‘empty hand, empty hand,’" Rivera said of his assistant coaches in the booth. “So that meant one of our guys knocked it loose, and when his hand moved forward, he had nothing in there except hitting the ball with his hand, knocking it forward.”

Harper never had a doubt Carolina would win the challenge.

“I didn’t have to lobby,” he said, reminding the replay on the big screen supported his argument. “I knew what happened and I was just trying to be emphatic about picking the ball up and just make sure we take advantage of the little things, the opportunities we do have.”

The turnover occurred in large part because defensive coordinator Sean McDermott picked up the pressure with timely blitz packages in the second half.

McCown was an efficient 6-of-10 passing for 68 yards and a touchdown in the first half. He had a passer rating of 113.8.

He was 7-of-18 for 96 yards in the second half. He was sacked twice and finished with a passer rating of 60.7.

Arguably the biggest play of the game came on the third play of the second half, when defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison teamed to sack McCown, who fumbled and gave Carolina possession at the Tampa Bay 4.

Two plays later, Jerricho Cotchery caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Derek Anderson to make it 16-10.

“We did some nice things on the defensive side,” Rivera said. “Some of the pressures Sean McDermott used in terms of coverage that [secondary coach] Steve Wilks and Sean and those guys talked about were excellent.

“We gave ourselves opportunities by playing the way we did on the defensive side.”

The pressure also led to an interception by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly with 14 seconds left and the outcome still in doubt. It continued a seven-game trend in which the defense played well.

“I finally got one,” Kuechly said of his interception. “I’ve been trying to run around and get one for a while.”

Rivera could say the same thing about challenges.

Saints vs. Panthers preview

December, 4, 2014
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

The New Orleans Saints (5-7) have had some extreme highs and lows this season. But they've got nothin' on the Carolina Panthers (3-8-1), who haven't won a game in two months.

The last time these NFC South rivals met in Carolina in Week 9, the Saints ran away with a 28-10 victory. New Orleans can't take anything for granted, however, as it lost three straight home games in Weeks 10-12 before bouncing back with an impressive win at Pittsburgh on Sunday.

It's a shame this rivalry turned out to be such a dud after they were two of the NFC's best teams in 2013. But then again, because of the sorry state of the NFC South this year, they're still both in the title hunt again.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Panthers haven't won since Week 5. Any reason to believe they can turn it around this week?

Newton: Has it been that long? Seems like only yesterday they beat the Chicago Bears on Oct. 5. Kidding, of course. As for your question, there are reasons the Saints shouldn't overlook the Panthers. The first game was 0-0 until late in the first quarter, when quarterback Cam Newton fumbled at his own 4. Then there was a 32-yard pass interference penalty late in the first half by cornerback Antoine Cason, who was cut on Tuesday, that led to a 14-0 Saints lead. If the Panthers can stop shooting themselves in the foot, they have a chance.

They held Minnesota to 210 yards on Sunday, but two first-half blocked punts returned for touchdowns never gave them a chance. The running game produced 178 yards against Minnesota. New Orleans still seems susceptible to the run. Do I believe the Panthers can put together a complete game and beat New Orleans? No. Particularly on the road. I also didn't see the Saints losing their last three home games, though.

Mike, it appears when Drew Brees isn't throwing to the other team, the Saints are a dangerous team, as we saw with his five-touchdown performance against Pittsburgh. Why has he been so inconsistent and how big a key is he to the Saints' success?

Triplett: You nailed his biggest issue -- and really his only major drawback this year. Brees is still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 36 touchdowns and a NFL-best 70.3 completion percentage. And you saw last week what he's still capable of. But he's had way too many turnovers (11 interceptions, two lost fumbles), and most of them have come in big moments in close games. Brees even was booed at home last month after an ugly interception before halftime.

I think the issue is that he's pressing too much. In so many weeks he has had to do it all by himself because the Saints' defense has been one of the worst in the NFL (along with the rest of the NFC South). We saw how much better he looked last Sunday because New Orleans' defense kept the game close early and gave Brees the ball back twice with two huge turnovers.

David, are we seeing a similar issue with Newton? From afar, it seems like he has really regressed this season.

Newton: It goes beyond Newton pressing because the defense has struggled. Much of it has to do with injuries to the offensive line and running backs, particularly the line. That group was inexperienced to start with, then injuries forced young players onto the field before they were ready. The Panthers will have the same five starting for the second straight week, which I don't believe has happened since early in the season.

But back to Newton, it appears he has gotten back into old habits of throwing off his back foot and running before going through his progressions. He has lost that swagger and confidence, and it seems to impact his decision-making and accuracy. He's still a threat because of his ability to run. He rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown against the Saints in the first meeting. But for Carolina to have a chance on Sunday he's going to have to find that swagger.

I saw where Jimmy Graham went without a catch against Pittsburgh. He has been a thorn in Carolina's side, catching seven passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting. What did the Steelers do so well against him?

Triplett: Depends on your definition of "do well." The Steelers actually paid too much attention to Graham, shadowing him with an extra safety for most of the game, usually Troy Polamalu. It worked in the sense that Graham wasn't even targeted once for the first time since 2012. But it opened things up for everyone else with receiver Kenny Stills gaining 162 yards, running back Mark Ingram rushing for 122 yards and five different players catching TD passes.

Obviously the Saints want more from Graham, but it's pick your poison. Defenses have been more successful this year when they sit back in coverage and let Graham catch a lot of underneath stuff. The Saints have put up great offensive statistics all season (first in the NFL in completion percentage and third-down percentage, second in yards). But they've struggled with turnovers and red-zone stalls when they're forced to go on 12- and 15-play drives.

What do you expect from Carolina's defensive approach in this game? And what's their best bet against Graham?

Newton: It'll be interesting. There could be two rookie starters, cornerback Bene' Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston -- Benwikere for sure after the Panthers released Cason. But the key will be pressure. The Panthers sacked Brees four times in the first game and held him to one touchdown. They didn't do a great job against Graham. To bring pressure meant using linebacker Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly on some blitzes because the front four hasn't been able to do it alone, as was the case last season. Those two typically would be around Graham a lot more. But if Brees isn't under pressure, it won't matter how good the coverage is. It begins and ends there.

What did you learn from the Oct. 30 game between these teams that you expect to make an impact on this one?

Triplett: My lasting image from that game was how woefully off-target Newton was with his passing (10-of-28). He was airmailing guys left and right, which obviously gave the Saints plenty of time to get rolling. At the same time, Newton was able to hurt the Saints when he took off running (five runs of 8 yards or more, including a touchdown).

So to me, the obvious key for New Orleans is to keep Newton in the pocket and make him throw. The Saints' four-man pass rush has been spotty this season (just as you described with Carolina). But they were vastly improved last week at Pittsburgh, with bookends Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette leading the way. Those two have combined for a whopping 10 sacks in their last three meetings with Carolina. They need to keep it up.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Imagine every other time you went to hit the keys on your laptop somebody tapped you on the shoulder. Or every other time you went to drive a nail somebody knocked the hammer out of your hand. Or every other time you went to give a speech somebody turned on the fire alarm.

It would be distracting. It likely would prevent you from doing your job at maximum efficiency.

Throw in the pain of being slammed to the ground, and that’s what a quarterback goes through when he’s constantly being pressured. He begins looking for the rush before getting to his second and third reads. He leaves the pocket even before the pocket crumbles.

[+] EnlargeNewton
AP Photo/Matt RourkeCam Newton, who was sacked nine times in Philadelphia on Monday, has been sacked 30 times this season, second most in the NFL.
His head is on swivel. There is concern, sometimes fear, in his eyes.

"I’ve seen it," Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole said. "I’ve seen it plenty of times. ... The biggest thing you have when you get to a guy that many times, he starts to take his eyes from downfield to look at the rush."

Cole saw it in last season’s finale against Atlanta, Sunday’s opponent at Bank of America Stadium, when the Panthers sacked quarterback Matt Ryan nine times. He expects Carolina quarterback Cam Newton experienced that to some degree in Sunday’s 45-21 loss at Philadelphia when he was sacked nine times.

"I can’t really speak on Cam’s situation, but I know in general when you’re able to get after the quarterback like we were against [Atlanta] last year, more times than not they’re going to be concerned with getting hit more than they are delivering that shot," Cole said.

"That’s what we’re hoping to bring to the field on Sunday, get him to stop looking down field for his big-time targets and look at us a little bit more and get after it."

Newton was criticized for not looking like himself against Philadelphia. There was speculation his surgically repaired left ankle -- as well as his right ankle -- were bothering him, even though Newton said that wasn’t an issue.

Cole wouldn’t expect his or any other quarterback to look like himself with the kind of pressure Newton was under Monday -- and has been all season.

Newton has been sacked 30 times, second in the NFL to San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. Neither is having a particularly good season statistically. Newton ranks 26th in passer rating at 80.1. Kaepernick is 15th at 92.7.

To put that in perspective, Denver’s Peyton Manning ranks second in passer rating at 112.0. He has been sacked nine times.

Pressure doesn’t always correlate to statistics. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 25 times, and he ranks third at 107.3.

But the average number of sacks for the top 10 quarterbacks in passer rating is 15.8, almost half of what Newton has. The average number of sacks for quarterbacks 11-20 is 20.3.

Ryan, No. 11 in passer rating, has been sacked 18 times.

"It’s tough," Ryan said as he recalled last season's game against Carolina. "Certainly the best way to stop a passing game is to get the quarterback on the ground.

"You’ve got to try as hard as you can to not let it affect the next play, and that is the mindset that I’ve tried to take into games that shake out like [last year’s against Carolina]."

Ryan’s numbers were surprisingly good for all the hits he took against the Panthers at the Georgia Dome. He completed 28 of 40 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted only once.

"If you’re hitting a guy, and you have guys around him, bumping on him, it’s going to make him uncomfortable," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "It’s human nature. One thing [Ryan] does well is he stands in there and throws the ball."

Newton tends to take off quicker because he’s used to using his legs as a weapon. That often results in him holding onto the ball too long, which results in sacks he could avoid.

"What happens is sometimes they try to make plays, try to go beyond what they need to," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of quarterbacks in general. "It’s hard. It’s difficult, especially when you’re behind and put yourself in that position."

Kuechly has seen quarterbacks flustered. He’s seen fear in their eyes. He hasn’t seen fear in Newton’s eyes.

"You watch, he gets hit a million times and then he gets right back up and he’s right back out there," he said. "That’s Cam. That’s what he takes pride in, and that’s why I like playing with him. He’s tough. Mentally, he’s very strong as far as that goes."

But at some point the hits have to impact Newton or any quarterback doing his job efficiently.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Big. Fast. Athletic. Luke Kuechy heard all this about fellow Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis when he arrived in 2012 as a first-round pick out of Boston College.

But Davis wasn’t all this when Kuechly arrived. He was coming off ACL surgery on his right knee for the third time. He was in rehabilitation mode.

Finally, a few months later during training camp, Davis had a moment that is etched into Kuechly’s memory.

[+] EnlargeThomas Davis and Luke Kuechly
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneLinebackers Thomas Davis (58) is the only player on Carolina's roster to win a playoff game as a Panther.
"A swing pass to the side and he turns the jets on," Kuechly recalled. "That’s Thomas."

Kuechly and Thomas finally got their first start together in Week 5 of that season when Jon Beason was injured. Kuechly took over in the middle next to Davis at weakside linebacker.

Since then there have been few linebacker combinations in the NFL that are better. Almost every week the opposing coach at some point during his conference call with the media will say there’s not a better pair in the league.

This week it was Atlanta’s Mike Smith.

"When you watch the tape, you see some guys that are playing fantastic football," he said. "Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, you’re not going to find two better on the same team in the NFL."

As poorly as the Carolina defense has played this season, Kuechly and Davis continue to set the standard for their position. Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, leads the league in tackles with 105.

Davis is second on the team and 21st in the NFL with 66.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera has been around a lot of great linebacker tandems during his career as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears and an assistant coach with the Bears, Philadelphia and San Diego.

He doesn’t hesitate to mention Kuechly and Davis in the same breath as eight-time Pro Bowl selection Brian Urlacher and seven-time Pro Bowl selection Lance Briggs with the Bears.

"We joke about it, saying the biggest thing we’ve got to do is not mess them up as far as coaching," Rivera said. "They work together so well. One feeds off the other."

Kuechly isn’t so sure he and Davis are the best. He reminds that San Francisco’s Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, both injured, are pretty good.

He also likes Detroit’s DeAndre Levy and -- he couldn’t remember his name -- Stephen Tulloch, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.

But he appreciates the recognition.

"Thomas and I take a lot of pride in what we do," he said. "We try to be the best we can, and hopefully it keeps going that way."

Kuechly appears a shoe-in for a second straight Pro Bowl appearance. He’s first at inside linebacker in the voting.

Davis still is waiting for his first trip to Hawaii. He played well enough to earn a trip there last season, and is on that pace again this season, but outside linebackers in a 4-3 scheme seldom get selected because those in a 3-4 scheme get more sacks.

"You know how that goes," Kuechly said. "I know he wants to get out there, but other that he just wants to win."

That’s all both really want. With Carolina struggling at 3-6-1, both gladly would trade any postseason honor for a victory against Atlanta (3-6) and a chance to get back into playoff contention.

They know it’s possible with NFC South leader New Orleans at 4-5. They understand the defense is starting to play well enough to start a winning streak.

As bad as Monday night’s 45-21 loss at Philadelphia looked, the Eagles’ first 10 points came following turnovers in Carolina territory, and 14 others came from a punt and interception returned for touchdowns.

"I just want to win," Kuechly said. "It’s [Pro Bowl] obviously cool. It’s a fun deal. I enjoyed it last year. But I want to win. I want to win, I want to win, I want to win.

"You talk to just about everybody in this locker room, and that’s what they’ll say."

They will also say there is no better linebacker combination in the NFL than Kuechly and Davis.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees didn't hesitate when asked what he remembered about Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly during a Week 16 game at Bank of America Stadium last season.

"I remember 24 tackles and a pick," Brees said.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsLuke Kuechly's 24 tackles against the Saints at Bank of America Stadium last season left an impression on the visitors.
Kuechly tied the NFL record for most tackles in a game in the 17-13 victory over the Saints. That Brees remembered the exact number of tackles and that the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year had an interception shouldn't be surprising.

It was that memorable of an effort.

"The guy is a stud," Brees said. "He is all over the place. He seems like he's making every tackle and every call. He's as good a football player as there is in the league."

Kuechly hasn't slowed down this season. He has a league-best 89 tackles. Since arriving in the NFL in 2012 he has 402 tackles, the most by 39 over his closest competition -- Jacksonville's Paul Posluszny.

But nothing Kuechly has done was as impressive as his 24-tackle effort against the Saints.

The Carolina coaching staff actually credited the former Boston College star with two more tackles after reviewing the tape, but they're not in the official record book.

"He is around every play, just pick a game," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "He's very active, he's got great key and diagnose, he's a great tackler and he's just a fantastic player. You can just single-handedly grab any game film and he's going to be involved in a ton of plays."

The Panthers (3-4-1) may need another Herculean effort from Kuechly in Thursday night's game against the Saints (3-4) with first place in the NFC South on the line.

New Orleans is coming off arguably its best game of the season, a 44-23 victory over Green Bay. Brees completed 27 of 32 pass attempts for 311 yards and three touchdowns.

The Saints, led by Mark Ingram's 172, also rushed for 193 yards.

But New Orleans was hot when it came to Carolina last season with a 10-4 record. Two weeks earlier, in a Sunday night game against the Panthers in New Orleans, Brees completed 30 of 43 pass attempts for 313 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-13 victory.

He had only one touchdown and was sacked six times in the loss at BOA.

Kuechly's 24 tackles played a big role in that.

"I looked at the screen and I was ahead of him," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said of the tackle count. "Then I looked up again and he was like 10 ahead of me. It's exciting to see him go out and play that way. I feed off of his energy and the things he's able to do as a player.

"It makes me better. It makes our team better when he goes out and performs that way."

Kuechly remembers the monsoon-like rain that hit in the third quarter of that game. He remembers the game seeming like a "marathon" it was so tense with the division title up for grabs. He remembers winning.

He doesn't remember much about the 24 tackles, saying he's had better games.

"Stats aren't what make a good game," he said. "It depends on TD responsibility and if you're successful in your job each play. If you make a tackle eight yards down the field, it's not a good play.

"I've had some games where the tackles weren't there, but I played really good."

Regardless, none was more memorable than his 24-tackle effort against the Saints.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Anthony Barr already got a game ball from coach Mike Zimmer after his game-winning fumble return touchdown on Sunday. Now, he's getting accolades from the NFL.

Barr won NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors on Wednesday, claiming the award for the first time after a game where he recorded eight tackles, a sack and his first forced fumble, which he returned for a touchdown in overtime after ripping it away from Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Barr also had another quarterback hit and broke up a pass in the game. He has recovered three fumbles in the past two weeks.

He is the sixth rookie to win the award in the last 10 seasons, adding his name to a list that is composed of DeMarcus Ware, Clay Matthews, Brian Orakpo, Sean Lee and Luke Kuechly. That's a pretty impressive list for Barr to belong to -- the players on it have been to a combined 15 Pro Bowls -- and it's another sign that the rookie has a chance to move into some rarefied air as a linebacker.
TAMPA, Fla. -- They talked like they were drafting the second coming of John Lynch.

Instead, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of a past regime might have hit on a second Sabby Piscitelli.

The current regime was only too happy to give up on 2012 first-round pick Mark Barron on Tuesday as the NFL's trading deadline approached. Barron was shipped to the St. Louis Rams for fourth- and sixth-round picks in 2015. The Bucs also traded reserve linebacker Jonathan Casillas to the New England Patriots. The Bucs will get New England’s fifth-round pick next season and send their 2015 sixth-round pick to the Patriots.

But it's the trade of Barron that's most significant. The current tandem of coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht obviously didn't share the same high opinion of Barron that former coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik did only two years ago.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but the Bucs could have taken linebacker Luke Kuechly with the seventh overall pick in the first round in 2012. Instead, they passed and took Barron. Kuechly won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 while playing for Carolina.

Barron hasn't been a total bust like Piscitelli, but he has produced only three interceptions in three seasons. Barron never has come close to playing up to his potential.

Barron became expendable in part because the Bucs have a trio of mediocre safeties in Bradley McDougald, Major Wright and Keith Tandy. None of those safeties has as much natural talent as Barron. But Barron's talent wasn't showing in the current system.

Barron also became expendable because he just wasn't as good as advertised. Maybe Barron turns into a force in St. Louis. But he was nothing more than mediocre in Tampa Bay.

Anybody else think the 2012 Bucs should have gone linebacker and drafted Kuechly?
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith saw something in the way the team performed in a 12-7 opening-day loss to Seattle last season that made him predict a rematch with the Seahawks deep into the playoffs.

It almost happened, as Carolina rallied from a 1-3 start to go 12-4 and come within a home win against San Francisco of meeting Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

There were no such bold predictions following Sunday's 13-9 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks, but there was optimism because of the way the defense played.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe Panthers' run defense kept RB Marshawn Lynch in check, limiting him to 62 yards rushing.
A unit that entered the game giving up 27.9 points and 388 yards a game held Seattle to 13 points and 310 yards. Eighty of those yards came on Seattle’s game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Russell Wilson accounted for 74 of the 80, rushing twice for 21 yards and completing 4 of 4 pass attempts for 53 yards.

Until Wilson went off, the Panthers (3-4-1) were playing at the level they did most of last season when they ranked second in the NFL in total defense. It gave a team that has gone 1-4-1 in its last six games reason to hope there could be a turnaround like last season.

"As long as we continue to put emphasis on the things we did this week, flying around, swarming to the ball, playing complete team defense," said linebacker Thomas Davis, who led Carolina with 10 tackles. "That's who we are, that's what we can do, that's what we’re capable of."

What happened on Seattle's final drive wasn't so much about what the Panthers didn't do as much as it was Wilson doing what he has done all year.

Before that drive the Panthers had held Wilson to 14 yards rushing on four carries. He finished with six carries for 35 yards, a far cry from the 100-plus yards rushing he had in two of the previous three games.

"This is the NFL, man," Davis said. "Guys make plays. That's what happened. He was able to put a drive together that ultimately ended up being the game-winning drive.

"For us defensively, we've got to play this game for four quarters and we've got to finish. ... It came down to us defensively. No matter how well we played early in the game, when the game was on the line we didn't execute and get that win for our team."

That was the attitude of last year's defense that gave up only 15 points a game. Davis believes this year's team can sustain what it began Sunday.

Coach Ron Rivera agreed.

"I'd like to believe so, especially against running the football," Rivera said. "But the one thing that did get us in the end, and kudos to them, was their quarterback."

Wilson aside, the Panthers didn't give up huge chunks after catches as they have been and gave up only one long run -- 25 yards to Marshawn Lynch, who finished with only 62 yards.

The defensive front played arguably its best game of the year, and that allowed Davis and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to make plays.

"We've got the guys to do it," Kuechly said. "We've got guys who can make plays. We just have to be consistent. That's going to be the message moving forward."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The NFL got it right by admitting an official made a mistake in ejecting Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly in the third quarter of Carolina's 38-17 loss at Green Bay on Sunday.

Kuechly did nothing wrong. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year simply threw up his left arm when grabbed at the waist from behind by back judge Steve Freeman after being separated from a scrum following a fumble.

Kuechly didn't know -- and had no way of knowing -- it was an official, having already been pulled from the pile by a player.

It was totally inadvertent contact. No punch was thrown. There was no malicious intent.

The league apparently saw the same thing. According to ESPN's Ed Werder, a source said Carolina coach Ron Rivera has been told a mistake was made and Kuechly would not be fined.

That Kuechly is one of the most mild-mannered players in the league -- except when it comes to tackling -- had nothing to do with the uproar about the ejection. It simply was wrong.

It was so wrong that one Green Bay fan took the time to find my email address to express outrage. I'll share because it likely sums up the thoughts of many on this. It read:

"I watch arrogant players get away with nasty plays every week; this was not one of those. This was my post via Facebook at the end of your internet article; please feel free to share it if it will make a difference for an outstanding player.

"I am a Packer fan and I feel totally sorry for Kuechly. It is clear that he thought another player was pulling at him; and as soon as he realized it was an official, he became docile. There is no evidence to support the ejection, nor is there evidence to support a fine. I have seen good men taken down for actions that were not really their own; this is one of them. Kuechly: if you are reading this, please don't let the ultimate enemy win. Continue to be a quality, caliber player regardless of the egoism that is the basis for this call. I am truly sorry for you from the bottom of my heart."

Panthers linebacker Chase Blackburn felt so strongly about it that he told The Charlotte Observer he would be disappointed if the league didn't issue a statement on it.

"Officials are held accountable too," said Blackburn, who is also Carolina's NFL Players Association representative. "That's how I look at it."

The league apparently agreed.

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

October, 19, 2014

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 38-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field:

What it means: This may have been one of those season-on-the-brink moments for the Panthers (3-3-1). Between penalties, mental errors and bad decisions, they were terrible offensively and defensively. Their only saving grace at the moment is that the rest of the NFC South is a mess. This one got away from Carolina before the cheese curds got cold. The Panthers were outgained 172-5 and outscored 21-0 in a disaster of a first quarter. They gave up 37 or more points for the fourth time in the last five games. They committed eight penalties for 55 yards in the first half. It was such a foregone conclusion early that Cam Newton never was a factor. There was nothing positive to take from this one.

Stock watch: The entire defense, big arrow down. Just when you thought this group couldn’t play any worse, it did. The first quarter was one of the worst in team history. The Panthers gave up 172 yards and three touchdowns to trail 21-0 just 13 minutes into the game. They also had four penalties for 30 yards. This sums it up: The defense could have gotten out of the first series unscathed but had consecutive offside penalties after it was second-and-20, one of which negated an interception. On Green Bay’s second drive, the Panthers had too many men on the field on third-and-3. I haven’t even mentioned all the missed tackles. To say this unit is a shell of the one that finished second in the league a season ago is an understatement. It was so bad that reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly was ejected in the third quarter after making contact with an official trying to separate him from a pile.

Wild card: Not to be lost in the wreckage, tight end Greg Olsen had another strong showing. He caught eight passes for 105 yards as he continues on a pace for career numbers. Even if the Panthers don’t turn things around, Olsen is playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Game ball: Not that anybody really deserves one, but I’ll give it to punter Brad Nortman. He kicked more times in the first half (five) than many punters do for a game. He finished with seven punts for an average of 53.9 yards, including a 67-yarder.

What’s next: The Panthers return home from two road games to face the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Seattle (3-3) has won the last three games in the series, including a 12-7 victory at Bank of America Stadium in last year's opener.