CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Gerald McCoy is a vegan these days, but when asked to describe what it’s like being a teammate with Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, the defensive tackle hearkened back to his meat-eating days.
“Luke is like going to a famous steakhouse, hearing about Wagyu steak,” said McCoy, who signed with Carolina in June after being released by Tampa Bay. “It’s been pampered all its life, played music, too, and wined and all this so it can be prime for you to enjoy. And then when you get to this famous steakhouse and you order the steak and bite into it, it’s like, ‘Wow, it is as advertised.’
“Like Luke Kuechly. Luke Kuechly. Prime steak. As advertised.”
With 17 tackles in Week 2, the 28-year-old Kuechly surpassed Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher for the most tackles by an NFL player through his first eight seasons. He needs eight tackles on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars to reach 1,000 career tackles.
No player has more tackles than Kuechly since he entered the league in 2012. He truly has been a “tackling machine,” as he was dubbed at Boston College, where he led the nation in tackles with 191 as a senior under coach Frank Spaziani.
“He was the human eraser,” said Spaziani, now the defensive coordinator at New Mexico State. “He would just make plays other people couldn’t make or didn’t make. The defense was a whole lot better when Luke was on the field. I’m sure it’s the same way today.”
Kuechly is perhaps the best player in Panthers history, a lock to one day be inducted into the team’s Hall of Honor that wide receiver Steve Smith, tackle Jordan Gross, quarterback Jake Delhomme and tight end Wesley Walls will enter during halftime of Sunday’s game.
“I like the way he plays. I like the style. I like the leadership. I like everything about him,” said Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone, who is facing a Carolina team that has won two straight after an 0-2 start. “A potential Hall of Fame type of player. He’s one of those players that we can all look at and really have a great appreciation for.”
The Panthers made it a priority to improve defensive speed and moved to a 3-4 base to get more pressure on quarterbacks. Kuechly has been the one constant.
He doesn’t get the splashy sacks that make headlines, but he’s a big reason the defense ranks No. 1 against the pass and No. 4 overall.
He’s tied for fourth in the NFL in total tackles with 44. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he has eight stuffs — tackles made on run plays resulting in no gain or loss — the most in the league among linebackers.
His 23 stops — tackles resulting a successful play for the defense — are tied for second among linebackers and only one off the league lead held by Jordan Hicks.
Kuechly’s ability to effectively drop into coverage allows coach Ron Rivera to be more creative with his blitz and rush package that has produced 18 sacks, which is tied with New England for the league lead a year after the team finished 27th in sacks.
“He’s one that, if you don’t have someone on him, he can make every play,” Marrone said.
Seventeen tackles, including one for a safety, would be a career game for most players. Kuechly was more upset after his Week 2 performance he didn’t come down with an interception that would have been an incredible highlight play, as he soared into the air 24 yards downfield.
“I dropped a pick,” a despondent Kuechly said afterward. “Got to catch that ball.”
Kuechly is a perfectionist. He spends as much or more time studying film than most coaches.
But it’s what you don’t see in practice, when Kuechly makes a rare mistake, that shows just how important perfection is to the six-time Pro Bowl selection.
“He’ll talk to himself. He’ll say bad things to himself,” defensive coordinator Eric Washington said with a smile. “He’ll go off to the sideline and he’ll immediately want to review the series. He wants it to be right. He wants it to be perfect.
“By the time we get to Sunday we all see the results and benefits from that kind of mindset.”
On game day, it’s almost like Kuechly is in the offensive huddle the way he anticipates. Safety Tre Boston cited as an example a play during the NFC Championship Game following the 2015 season.
“They were running a toss and Luke literally was telling us before the snap, ‘Hey, toss to the right, toss to the right,’” Boston recalled. “And then they audibled the play and he knew what it was.
“He was supposed to be in the middle. But when they said hut, he was on the edge of the defense, pretty much catching the ball with the running back with the sweep. That preparation really gives him the confidence to make those plays.”
Kuechly’s career has been threatened by concussions. He has spent three stints in the concussion protocol, the first one in 2015 after a violent collision at Jacksonville.
Kuechly doesn’t like talking about those moments. When he missed time in training camp this year after what he called being “rolled up weird” during a drill, he anticipated reporter’s questions before they were asked.
“My head’s good,” Kuechly said. “I wasn’t in the protocol.”
Kuechly hasn’t been in the protocol since 2017. That’s allowed the outside focus to remain on his superb play and Kuechly’s focus to remain on the field and talking about how the opponent’s best player as a “good dude” or “stud.”
He’s not a boisterous voice in the locker room, but his leadership is more important than ever, especially with outside linebacker Thomas Davis now with the Los Angeles Chargers.
For seven years, Kuechly and Davis had a friendly competition for the most tackles. That hasn’t stopped because they’re on different teams.
“He called me the first week and told me he beat me, so, a little resentment there,” Kuechly said with a laugh.
Panthers outside linebacker Shaq Thompson, whose star has risen since Davis departed, also is in on the competition. As it stands, Kuechly has 44 tackles, Thompson 40 and Davis 38, all among the top 10 in the league.
What’s the ultimate winner get?
“Pride,” Kuechly said. “The NFL, there’s no gambling.”
Pride drives Kuechly. It’s something McCoy believes is at the core of a locker room culture that didn’t let the Panthers collapse after losing their first two games. It’s one of the reasons he chose to sign here.
“His ultimate goal is to get off the field and get the offense back out there,” McCoy said. “He doesn’t care who makes the plays. Whoever makes them, makes them. He just makes more than most people.”