With Monday night’s game still in the balance late in the second quarter and the Carolina Panthers clinging to a three-point lead over the Miami Dolphins, Luke Kuechly did what Luke Kuechly does.
Dolphins coach Adam Gase thought he had a good play called – a deep corner route to Julius Thomas, one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the league. What he didn’t count on was Kuechly sprinting stride for stride with Thomas, deflecting the pass and then catching it himself for the interception that completely turned a game Carolina would win 45-21.
Said Panthers quarterback Cam Newton later: “Without me even knowing ... I’m pretty sure Luke knew what was coming, and I bet he wasn’t supposed to be there. That’s just Captain America.”
Sure enough, Gase said, there was no way Kuechly was supposed to be anywhere near that pass. Cutler would agree with that sentiment, saying Kuechly “technically” wasn’t supposed to be in that spot.
“He made it all the way over there,” Gase said of Kuechly after the game, adding that he was “a little surprised.”
No Panthers fan who has watched Kuechly play for the past six years was the least bit surprised. Since Kuechly entered the NFL in 2012, he has 15 interceptions. No other NFL linebacker during that time period has more than 10. One one of the linebackers tied at 10 is Thomas Davis, who said of Kuechlys’ sizeable lead: “I’ve got some work to do.”
Kuechly is going to do something like that a few times every year. The only thing more predictable is Kuechly giving someone else the credit for every play he ever makes – on this one he singled out Davis for making Cutler “elevate” the ball by getting into the passing lane.
Those sorts of plays are also why it remains so hard for Kuechly to ever publicly consider – even for a moment – that maybe he shouldn’t be playing football at all. He has been in the concussion protocol three times in the past three years, missing at least one game in every season because of his head.
But his heart? That never seems to get injured. Kuechly was ramped up as usual under the Monday night lights. And while the interception was his signature play of the game, his signature series would come in the third quarter with Carolina ahead 24-7.
Miami was somewhat desperate to score and was running a hurry-up offense from its 40. On second-and-10, Cutler hit Jarvis Landry, but Kuechly dragged him down for a 3-yard gain. On third-and-7, Cutler threw a quick flanker screen to Landry that looked like it might go for a 20-yard gain.
Instead, Kuechly sped toward Landry and somehow knocked him down for only 6 yards. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden called it a “spectacular” play by Kuechly on the TV broadcast. But Kuechly’s explanation won’t surprise you.
“I think Cap (Munnerlyn) and Daryl (Worley) were out there on that bubble pass and those guys did a good job of setting an edge,” Kuechly said. “They won’t get credit for that play, but they deserve it.”
That’s just Captain America.
Cam Newton, on Luke Kuechly’s interception against Miami.
Then, on fourth-and-1, Miami gambled. The Dolphins quickly ran Damien Williams up the middle. Defensive tackle Kawann Short (who was great all night) and Kuechly both were able to shed their blocks and combined for a tackle in the backfield. Williams actually lost a yard. Kuechly, of course, said Short deserved all the credit.
“KK just makes plays like that,” Kuechly said. “And a fourth-down stop like that is as good as a turnover.”
The defense wasn’t perfect, and in fact this was the rare 2017 game in which the Panthers offense outshone everyone. Carolina scored touchdowns on five straight possessions, making the Panthers defense giving up a 66-yard touchdown run to Kenyan Drake a minor blip when on some Sundays this year a letdown like that would have lost the game.
The Panthers defense, ranked No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed entering the weekend, has played at a playoff level in almost every game this year. The offense has not, but on Monday night it did as the Panthers moved to 7-3 heading into their bye week.
“Those guys play like that on offense, it makes our job easy,” Kuechly said.
On Monday night, at least, it looked easy for the whole second half. But if Kuechly dropped that ball, the night could have gone very differently. The Panthers had both of their biggest stars clicking Monday night – Newton had four touchdown passes and a 69-yard run.
And when the “Cam and Luke” show is going like that, no one really wants to play the Panthers.