Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly has 24 tackles, most in NFL in 6 years

jjones@charlotteobserver.com rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comDecember 22, 2013 

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Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy and linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) celebrate a play vs. the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Kuechly had 24 tackles as the Panthers defeated the Saints 17-13.

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly lived up to his “tackling machine” moniker on Sunday.

Kuechly’s 24 tackles in Sunday’s 17-13 victory against the New Orleans Saints blasted his previous career-high of 19 and was the most in the NFL in more than six years.

New York Jets’ David Harris posted 24 against Washington in November 2007, which was the most since 1994, according to STATS LLC.

“I mean, 24 tackles in an NFL game? That’s like a created player in Madden,” free safety Mike Mitchell said. “That’s not supposed to happen.”

After the game, Kuechly deflected praise.

“It’s not me, it’s not Thomas,” Kuechly said of his stats. “It’s the coaches, (defensive coordinator Sean) McDermott, (linebackers coach) Al (Holcomb), it’s the D-line that help us do that.”

Kuechly’s 24 tackles and one interception made him the first player since Tampa Bay’s Derrick Brooks in 2001 with at least 20 tackles and an interception.

He picked off Drew Brees in the third quarter on third-and-10 from the New Orleans 36 on a pass intended for Jimmy Graham.

“I didn’t really see him, I just saw the ball come out,” Kuechly said. “That goes back to the guys up front pushing the pocket, getting in his face, causing some problems in the middle from him.”

Nortman’s big day : For more than three quarters, punter Brad Nortman was arguably in contention for MVP of the Panthers.

Nortman punted eight times with an average of 50.8 yards and a net of 47. He hit a long of 60 and downed two punts inside the 20.

Not only did those two go inside the 20, they went inside the 5. His third-quarter punt was downed by Josh Thomas at the 2, and his early fourth-quarter punt from the Carolina 40 went 57 yards to the New Orleans 3.

“When the field gets so wet and damp it tends to catch better,” Nortman said. “It’s not going to take a strong bounce. Once the ball hits the ground it’s sort of up to God where it goes. I kicked it where I wanted to and it landed and it killed it. Luckily both of those died right there.”

But Nortman didn’t get the one he wanted late in the game. The special teams unit rushed to get the punt off before the two-minute warning but failed.

Nortman’s punt went 38 yards out of bounds to the New Orleans 26.

“It was a little bit rushed and the wind was going right to left so I tried to angle it left,” he said. “I caught it a little bit inside. I think it was a 38-yard net so to keep it out of (Darren) Sproles hands is always a good thing. It wasn’t the punt I wanted to hit totally but a 38-yard net I’ll take it in that situation.”

Hardy’s gold: Defensive end Greg Hardy wore gold-colored cleats for the first half of the game, and he is likely to face a fine of around $10,000 from the NFL.

Since gold is not one of Carolina’s colors, it’s an equipment policy violation.

Hardy, who had three sacks Sunday, didn’t seem to care about an impending fine.

“Swag. Never heard of Kraken swag? They’re a little bit lighter, they’ve got more grip and I like to make the fans happy,” Hardy said.

“If I get 1,000 more followers, who cares, right? We won. Those guys (fans) out there are happy. That’s what I like. I hope you guys (media) are happy. My teammates are happy, coaches are happy. That’s all that matters.”

Downfield praise: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees went out of his way post-game to be complimentary of the Panthers’ often-maligned secondary. Brees was sacked six times, tying the most in his time as a Saint.

“(They) did a good job of covering some things downfield when we were trying to push the ball downfield, and so that was maybe a result of having to hold the ball a little bit longer,” Brees said.

At least one of those sacks knocked the Saints out of field-goal position in a first-half drive.

Brees said there were no big game-plan changes on the Panthers’ part that explains Carolina winning Sunday after being drilled two weeks ago in New Orleans,

“Same team,” Brees said. “Obviously you kind of put together some wrinkles anytime you are playing a divisional opponent the second time, especially with only a two-week lapse. But I don’t think there were any big surprises out there today. Just two really good football teams going at it for 60 minutes and it took all 60.”

Weather rush : Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who had New Orleans’ only touchdown – a 5-yard reception from Brees – said the Saints’ offensive limitations were part Panthers defense, part monsoon conditions for much of the third quarter.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to march the ball down the field when it’s raining like that in the third quarter,” Graham said. “That limits you, especially when you want to come out and take some shots (downfield).

“They would cover very well and more than anything they had a good pass rush. When a pass rush is like that, you have to chip and really focus and sometimes try to get the ball out quick.”

Observations

•  Newton wore Superman cleats and socks in pregame warm-ups before changing.

•  Kudos to the Panthers’ ground crew. The field held up very well considering the downpour in the second half.

•  With Greg Olsen leading the team with 739 yards, it’s likely the Panthers will not have a 1,000-yard receiver for the seventh time in team history.

•  The drains on the upper level poured water onto fans in the 200 and 300 sections below during the third quarter. Most of the fans sitting in the drop zone relocated while others took their pictures standing under the waterfall.

•  There can’t be many games in the NFL where the winning team gets zero third-down conversions and trailed in time of possession by more than 17 minutes.

•  Observer columnist Tom Sorensen said in his prediction that if the Panthers go 11-5, he would buy golf shirts in mauve, taupe and lavender. Wardrobe update coming soon.

By the numbers

0 Third-down conversions by the Panthers, in nine attempts.

1 Wins the Panthers need to clinch the NFC South and a home playoff game.

5 Catches, on 11 targets, for Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who did score a fourth-quarter touchdown that briefly gave New Orleans the lead.

50.8 Average, on eight punts, for Panthers punter Brad Nortman. He killed two inside the 10.

24 Tackles credited to Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, most in an NFL game since 2007.

Quotes

•  “We’re a team and we all believe in one another, and that’s a beautiful thing.” – Panthers safety Mike Mitchell.

• “I think we got back to what we want to do – play sound, play smart, get after the quarterback and get up in Drew Brees’ face.” – Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.

•  “It hurts, but like I said before, three of the last four Super Bowl champions took the hard route. So if that’s what we’ve got to do to win it, that’s what we’ve got to do.” – Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis.

•  “They had that one big play. That’s kind of what we defended against the whole game. They were able to kind of squeeze one out once they needed it.” – Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins.

•  “We’ve had a few scars the last couple seasons, so there’s a lot to celebrate about and a lot to be proud of.” – Panthers center Ryan Kalil.

•  “The NFC South is up for grabs. We go take care of business down in Atlanta and we get the first-round bye and it’s closer to our goal – and that is to get to the Super Bowl.” – Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.

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