Panthers Kuechly says new DTs make his job easier

May. 25, 2013 @ 06:06 AM

Luke Kuechly was hoping for a little help this offseason.

So it's no surprise the Panthers second-year middle linebacker was pretty excited when Carolina fulfilled his wish and selected Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick in last month's NFL draft.

Kuechly knew right away his job had just become a lot easier.

"I was watching the draft from my apartment and I had a huge smile on my face," Kuechly said of the pick.

Last year's AP Defensive Rookie of the Year says having a big body like Lotulelei playing in front of him will free him up to make even more plays this season. That's a scary thought for opposing offenses given Kuechly led the NFL in tackles last season without much help from the team's interior line.

"It was funny, (defensive tackle) Sheldon Richardson got picked up at number 13 and then I knew we had the next pick and there were still two tackles on the board. I was like, please get one of them for me," Kuechly said.

The Panthers not only got one for Kuechly, they got two.

Carolina came back in the second round and selected defensive tackle Kawann Short from Purdue, giving them added pass rushing help in the middle in between defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy.

If the youngsters play up to their potential is should help ease the double teams on Johnson and Hardy, who combined for 23.5 sacks last season.

But Kuechly is likely to be the main beneficiary.

"The more the better," Kuechly said. "With big guys up front they're going to need two blockers to handle them. And when you commit two guys (to blocking) a defensive lineman it allows us linebackers to run around and make more plays. It makes my job a little easier."

Coach Ron Rivera played linebacker for nine seasons with the Chicago Bears and knows the benefits of having big linemen.

"I know from experience they can help make players even better than we are," said Rivera, who won a Super Bowl with the 1985 Bears. "Plus it will also help our pass rush and coverage so there will be a lot of good things to come from those two guys up front."

It's hard to imagine Kuechly playing much better than he did as a rookie coming out of Boston College.

Rivera said Kuechly immediately took over as the defensive leader after moving from the weak side to middle linebacker following veteran Jon Beason's season-ending injury in Week 4.

Kuechly registered double-digit tackles totals in 11 of his final 12 games playing in the middle, recovered three fumbles, intercepted two passes and knocked down five balls.

"He has a lot of natural ability," Rivera said of Kuechly. "Whoever coached him before he got here did a (heck) of a job. They really did. But Luke worked so hard at it and he communicates so well with his teammates. As he begins to fully understand the philosophy of this defense I really think he's just going to get better and better."

Kuechly said there are still "a ton of things" he needs to improve upon, including his pass coverage.

"There are certain plays I look back on and think if I had done this or that a little better maybe we could have won another game here or there," Kuechly said. "Pass coverage is about understanding the defense and having an overall knowledge of what's going on. The more reps you get the better you are at that."

NOTES: Rivera said Thursday the Panthers are moving last year's backup defensive tackle Nate Chandler to the offensive line. Chandler played some offensive line at UCLA before Bruins coaches moved him over to defense out of necessity.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.