CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was the first play of team drills. Luke Kuechly lined up next to fellow inside linebacker Shaq Thompson behind a three-man front and immediately dropped into coverage. The pass came his way and the six-time Pro Bowl selection launched himself high for the interception.
The Carolina Panthers are making a transition from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4, but that doesn’t change what Kuechly does: make plays.
“I mean, it’s stupid to think that he’s not going to fit,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said following Tuesday’s offseason workout. “We’re not really disrupting anything he does.”
When Rivera first said the defense was changing to more odd-man fronts in an effort to get more pressure on the quarterback, there were questions about how it would affect Kuechly, whose 948 tackles since entering the NFL in 2012 are the most in the league.
The simple answer: not at all.
Great players typically continue to do great things no matter the scheme. The last time the Panthers based their defense out of the 3-4 — from 1995 to 1998 — middle linebacker Sam Mills had two of his best seasons, even after he turned 35. He led the team in tackles in 1995 and 1996, and he had career highs in sacks with 4.5 and 5.5.
He has a statue outside Bank of America Stadium.
There’s no reason to think Kuechly, nicknamed “Tackling Machine” at Boston College, won’t continue to rack up big numbers. And there’s no reason to think the scheme won’t benefit other stars, such as Thompson, tackle Kawann Short and end/linebacker Mario Addison — who grew up in Rivera’s 4-3 scheme.
“There’s new spacing, new run fits, the ball hits in different spots,” Kuechly said. “Those are things you’ve kind of got to get used to a little bit, but it’s still football and a lot of principles from the defense have carried over to now.”
San Diego revisited
The last time Rivera based his defense out of the 3-4 was in 2010 as the defensive coordinator for the then-San Diego Chargers. That unit led the NFL in total defense and helped Rivera land the Carolina job.
So, in preparation for offseason workouts, Rivera gave players cut-ups of old Chargers film to give them a visual of what he’s trying to accomplish.
“The thing that helps me the best is seeing other people do it,” Kuechly said. “Then you get a really good feel for how it looks in a game, how it looks live. Stuff on paper is easy. Anybody can draw it up and make it look how it’s supposed to.
“But when you see it on tape, when you see it in practice, that’s when it really ingrains — at least in my head.”
“Just seeing other guys who played that 5- to 3-technique,” he said of his new role as an end in the 3-4 after playing tackle in a 4-3. “Seeing what works and what doesn’t work, and how you can cheat a little bit and play it true.
“That’s made a big difference.”
Rivera began experimenting with the 3-4 late last season when he took over the defensive playcalling in an effort to put more pressure on the quarterback. The Panthers finished 27th in the league with 35 sacks, the lowest total since Rivera’s first season in 2011.
He was seeing better results before Thompson suffered a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve. Without Thompson, there wasn’t adequate personnel to do everything Rivera wanted.
Thompson is healthy now and surrounded by more players who fit the scheme. The addition of free agent Bruce Irvin, who played outside linebacker in a 3-4 and end in a 4-3 at Seattle and Oakland, should help.
By then, it was clear the direction the defense was headed.
“Those guys have a feel for it,” Kuechly said. “You can ask them questions because they’ve done it in the past and they understand it. That’s a valuable asset.”
Short’s sack totals have declined since the 2015 season, when he tied for the NFL lead among defensive tackles with 11. He had only three last season thanks to a steady increase in inside double-teams. Not even the addition of 346-pound Dontari Poe beside him changed things.
The double-teams still will come as Short moves to end in the 3-4, but that second blocker might now be a tight end or running back instead of a guard.
Short is excited about his potential there.
“It’s good for me, good for the front, good for every individual up front, even the guys outside,” Short said. “It’ll give us more freelance to go.”
The Panthers depended largely on their four-man front for pressure in the past. With the 3-4, they’ll now have five players on the line with the two outside linebackers. They shouldn’t be as predictable in terms of who is rushing and who is dropping into coverage.
“It’ll translate well,” Rivera said of Short’s skill set in the 3-4. “He has enough athleticism to be part of what we do.”
Addison, always a bit undersized as an end at 6-3 and 260 pounds, will be able to put his athletic ability to better use as a stand-up linebacker.
The same goes for second-year player Marquis Haynes (6-2, 235), who seemingly gets mentioned in every conversation about this transition.
A question about Haynes led Rivera to commit more to saying the 3-4 would be the base defense. Previously, the standard line had been that the base would be situational.
“We kind of felt making the move to a little bit of a 3-4 base was going to benefit him, and we’ve seen it,” Rivera said. “Very explosive off the ball. This suits him better than having to put his hand on the ground all the time.”
The 3-4 scheme suits a lot of teams as it becomes increasingly harder to find enough standout defensive linemen to run a 4-3. Among those that use the 3-4 predominantly are the Steelers, Ravens, Packers, Broncos, Titans, Texans and Rams.
It’s why the Panthers have shown interest in former Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who like Poe could anchor the middle of a 3-4 and play beside Poe or Short in a 4-3. McCoy reportedly will visit Carolina later this week.
Former Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy will visit the Panthers this week, a league source confirmed. Coach Ron Rivera said on Tuesday that McCoy would help the Panthers, who are transitioning to a 3-4 base. Joe Person of the Athletic first… https://t.co/pXdP6s8Ww9
— David Newton (@DNewtonespn) May 29, 2019
For Kuechly, it’s just football. Whether he has four players in front of him or three, it doesn’t matter. He just excels, as he showed with his interception in team drills.
“Honestly, it’s a three-man front, but football is football,” he said. “Everyone drops the same for a Cover 3. Spacing looks the same. So you just get it from a different way. It’s a lot of the same principles. You’ve just got to get used to intricacies.”