CHARLOTTE, N.C. —A flashy new sign appeared in the Carolina Panthers’ locker room last week, pasted above the section where the defensive backs store their gear. It has gradations of pale blue and white and declares that the area is “Thieves Ave.”
As in, the home of interceptors and fumble forcers; the residence of players who will swipe the ball from their opponents.
Just beneath the sign, the garrulous cornerback Josh Norman will often speak with reporters in front of a locker that houses a three-foot-tall speaker, all the better for blaring whatever music he wants to dominate the room. Next to him, safety Roman Harper boldly declared the other day that “we are the better team,” comparing the Panthers with the Seattle Seahawks, their playoff opponent Sunday.
But tucked away in the farthest corner of the same cavernous room, far from his brash and bold teammates, is where linebacker Luke Kuechly quietly hangs his jersey.
Kuechly, the defense’s 24-year-old leader, doesn’t seek the spotlight. He is “laid-back,” as his fellow linebacker Shaq Thompson described. He rarely says anything that isn’t expected, and he doesn’t have anything hanging above his locker aside from his nameplate. When prodded by a reporter to give himself a nickname, he said, simply, “How about ‘Luke?’ ”
But he is the centerpiece of the sixth-best defense in the N.F.L. on the league-best 15-1 Panthers, winner of the N.F.L.’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Award and a contender again this season despite missing three games with a concussion.
Kuechly and the veteran linebacker Thomas Davis will be tasked with slowing Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who declared Thursday, “I’m ready.” Lynch has not played since Nov. 15, and had abdominal surgery Nov. 25.
They will very likely do so steadily, methodically and fairly thoroughly, as they have all season. Unlike their teammates, Kuechly and Davis feed off competition with each other more than accolades and attention from outsiders.
“That’s kind of who we are: We go out and try to let our actions speak for us,” Davis said. “We don’t do a whole lot of talking. Our goal each week is to try to be the best linebacker corps on the field.”
According to Norman, Kuechly and Davis have battles for who will have the most tackles each game. The loser has “some chore” in the locker room afterward. Kuechly has lost to Davis only three times this season.
“Competition is stupid high; I don’t think you can match the competition which those guys try to put themselves in,” Norman said. “I don’t think a regular person can fathom that.”
The competition has propelled Kuechly to 118 tackles this season, 13th in the league, but also the fewest of his career at 9.1 tackles per game. When he was the 2012 rookie of the year, he averaged a career-high 10.3 tackles.
When the Panthers and the Seahawks met in Week 6, as Carolina escaped with a 27-23 victory in nabbing its first triumph over Seattle in its last five tries, Kuechly recorded 14 tackles. But it was his first game back after sustaining the concussion.
“Coming off the concussion, you can be a little bit slow or just scared to get hit in the head again,” said Thompson, a rookie. “But now, after that, he’s turned into the Luke that I’ve been seeing since college. I can’t wait to watch him out there in the playoffs.”
This playoff matchup with the Seahawks provides an opportunity for redemption for the Panthers, who were knocked out of the last postseason by Seattle. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who played for three seasons at North Carolina State before transferring to Wisconsin, has long been a thorn in the Panthers’ side.
“Guys are even whispering we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” quarterback Cam Newton said.
And while “Thieves Ave.” will try to muster a takeaway from the Seahawks (the only opponent from whom the Panthers did not have one this season), while Newton will continue to dance and preen after scoring touchdowns, and while Norman will jabber with opponents all game long, Kuechly will do what he always has, too: quietly and steadily lead the defense.
“He’s a tremendous help to not only me, but to all the linebackers, even the D.B.s,” Thompson said. “He’s a big inspiration to this team.”