The team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the game, and it’s no mystery why: whether a strip-sack on a well-designed blitz, a giveaway that shifts momentum, or a pick-six in overtime, few plays make more of a difference in winning and losing. Dave Archibald looks at a pair of interceptions by Luke Kuechly on Thanksgiving Day that helped the Carolina Panthers rout the Dallas Cowboys.
The Panthers entered Thanksgiving Day 10-0, but Las Vegas had them pegged as underdogs against a 3-7 Cowboys team in the House Jerry Built. But it’s a safe bet casinos won’t underestimate Carolina again.
Naysayers pointed to a soft schedule and lack of star power, but those criticisms proved cold comfort for a Cowboys team looking to climb back into the playoff picture with the return of quarterback Tony Romo from a clavicle injury. By the time the dust settled on the 33-14 Panthers win, Romo was injured again, and out for the season, and Dallas dropped to 3-8, their playoff dreams all but dead. The game was a holiday showcase for an underappreciated Carolina team and their defensive leader, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who snared a pair of second-quarter interceptions that essentially put the game out of reach.
Defending the Dagger
The Panthers love their zone defenses and they go to one of their favorites looks – Tampa 2, the coverage scheme made famous by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin when they coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense in the 1990’s. Tampa 2 has fallen out of favor in recent years because there aren’t enough middle linebackers who can perform the tasks needed. The middle linebacker in a Tampa 2 scheme needs the traditional qualities of a “Mike” ‒ intelligence, instincts, and toughness in run support ‒ but he also the coverage abilities of a safety to defend the deep middle of the field, one of the most vulnerable areas in a traditional Cover 2. Effectively, he must possess the range and instincts to play two positions at once.
Down 13-3 and facing 2nd-and-13 on their own 17-yard-line, the Cowboys line up with trips right:
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Enter Luke Kuechly. The Cowboys use a variant of the dagger concept to stress the deep middle area where Kuechly (#59) is responsible. Tight end Jason Witten (#82) runs vertically up the seam, while wideout Terrance Williams (#82) runs a deep dig into the vacated area. The play initially develops as Jason Garrett drew it up, with Kuechly following Witten up the seam. But, as Kuechly sees Williams cut, the linebacker reacts. He passes Witten to safety Roman Harper (#41) and jumps Williams’s dig route for the interception. He gets a few timely blocks and returns the pick for a touchdown.
Kuechly draws praise for his range and speed ‒ and rightly so ‒ but this play is as much about his recognition skills and the precision of Carolina’s zone scheme. Kuechly understands how Dallas is trying to attack and anticipates the dig route. His trust in Harper to pick up the seam is a key part of why he has the confidence to attempt plays like this.
The Man in the Middle
Foolishly, Romo tests Kuechly again on the very next play:
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Again the Cowboys line up with trips to the right and plan to attack the middle of the field vertically. Receiver Cole Beasley (#11) in the outside slot runs the seam route, while Witten executes a post from the inside slot toward the middle of the field.
This isn’t a true Tampa 2 look ‒ the Panthers blitz up front, so they use some man-to-man concepts on the outside ‒ but the middle linebacker has to cover a large swath of the field. Kuechly stays with Witten on the post, and Romo tries to squeeze the throw in to his veteran tight end. At the decision point for Romo, Witten appears to have half a step on Kuechly, but the tight end can’t pull away from the speedy linebacker and the pass is slightly underthrown. Kuechly makes it two interceptions in two plays.
This play shows off Kuechly’s range. He starts the play on the 24-yard line ‒ just four yards off the line of scrimmage ‒ and catches the interception at about the 44-yard line. Twenty yards in reverse is a lot of ground to cover for a linebacker, but Kuechly looks like a defensive back trailing, running with the tight end, and plucking the pass out of the air.
Carolina’s defense put on a show Thursday with Kuechly on center stage. Through 11 weeks, no team has generated more turnovers and only Denver has allowed fewer yards per play. The key is a perfect marriage of scheme and personnel.
Zone defenses are tough to play because modern passing offenses excel at attacking the soft spots between zones, especially in the middle of the field, but linebackers with the coverage skills of Kuechly ‒ and speedy fellow ‘backers Thomas Davis and rookie Shaq Thompson ‒ shrink the gaps between zones and make passing to the middle a hazardous proposition. Romo and the Cowboys found that out the hard way. If the fans, critics, and Vegas experts paid attention between servings of Turkey on Thursday, they learned how interceptions by Luke Kuechly are just the beginning of that lesson.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.