The biggest question the Panthers face coming off their bye week: Move rookie Luke Kuechly from weakside to middle linebacker, or keep defensive captain Jon Beason there?
The Carolina Panthers’ coaching staff spent most of their bye week evaluating their team rather than looking ahead to Sunday’s home game against Dallas.
“You go back and look at what happened in all our games, when you watch every phase, you see a lot,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. “You’re a little more objective. You don’t have to worry about getting ready for the next opponent. You see we had opportunities that we missed.”
“The approach (at who plays MLB) is you’ve got to see who is doing what and put them in the best position.”
The Observer analyzed every defensive snap this season, watching the play of Beason and Kuechly.
Beason anchored the defense for the first two games, while Kuechly struggled to adjust to NFL speed. But in games against the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, Kuechly seemed to outshine the veteran Beason.
And in the rookie’s only game at middle linebacker, Kuechly put together his best game of the season, helping the Carolina defense hold Seattle to 16 points.
In that game, with Beason sidelined, Kuechly slid to the middle for the first time since he set the ACC’s all-time tackles record at Boston College. He responded with a team-high 11 tackles, one tackle for a loss, one interception and zero missed tackles while playing in 64 of the 65 defensive snaps. After film review, the Panthers actually credited Kuechly with 16 tackles against the Seahawks.
He did, however, miss an assignment when he bit on a play-action fake, resulting in a 19-yard pass that led to a field goal.
“I think maybe the first quarter and a half I didn’t play too well,” Kuechly said of the Seattle game. “I was getting pushed around. Then you just figure out how they’re attacking you and how you can attack them a little bit better.”
Monday, Kuechly and Beason saw time at both the Mike (MLB) and Will (WLB) positions in the Panthers’ practice.
Beason, a six-year veteran who has been to three Pro Bowls, has been unequivocal about his wishes to remain in the middle. But he has dealt with both shoulder and knee injuries this season, and Rivera has pointed to those injuries as causes for occasional ineffectiveness.
In the season-opener against Tampa Bay, a healthy Beason led all players with 10 tackles and played 99 percent of the snaps. Kuechly had four tackles, and he missed three others. Rivera said Kuechly was “flying around” and trying to make every play.
The Panthers used Kuechly for 29 out of 78 defensive snaps against New Orleans the following week. He had five tackles (and missed three) against the Saints, while Beason had seven tackles and a game-clinching interception, playing 76 of 78 snaps.
Then, before a nationally televised Thursday night game against the New York Giants, Beason missed practice with knee and shoulder issues.
Beason played against the Giants, totaling five tackles in 57 snaps, but he had two missed tackles, resulting in a 31-yard run and a 23-yard catch. Meanwhile, Kuechly put together a 12-tackle performance in 51 snaps against New York, including three tackles for a loss and no missed tackles.
Beason was questionable going into Atlanta in Week 4, but played, having as many missed tackles (five) as tackles in 65 snaps against the Falcons. Kuechly, playing 28 snaps, had five tackles, one pass defended and no missed tackles.
“At the Mike, it’s a little bit more of a flow position,” Kuechly said Monday. “You ask Beason, he’s played Will before, too. Once you get to the Mike, you get to play both ways. At the Will, you’re an edge guy. You’ve got to get ready for cutbacks. So it’s a little bit slower. At Mike you can flow a little bit better.”
“It doesn’t matter too much to me,” said Kuechly about where he plays, “just where I’m comfortable.”
But if the Seattle game was any indication, Kuechly is more comfortable in the middle.