Drew Brees handed the ball off to Mark Ingram. The Heisman Trophy winning tailback busted up the middle, but was met by a face that had plagued his offense the entire game.
Waiting behind the line of scrimmage was a 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker ready to pounce. As Ingram looked to break through his offensive line, the defender moved to his right and met the running back, who was just yards away from putting his team ahead.
The 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year powered through Ingram with a bit of help from his teammate, defensive tackle Kawann Short.
By bringing down Ingram, former Boston College star Luke Kuechly tallied his 24th tackle of the afternoon against the New Orleans Saints. With just over seven minutes remaining, he was one tackle shy of tying the NFL record for tackles in a single game.
It was a career day for the second-year linebacker out of Cincinnati, OH, who at the age of 22 nearly tied the mark set in 2006 by Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Even considering his career at BC, where he averaged 15.9 tackles per game in 2011, his 24 tackles were a personal record. His career high as an Eagle came when he recorded 23 stops against Duke.
Performances like that one against the Saints earned Kuechly the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award on Saturday. He beat out the likes of Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts and Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks for the honor.
With 156 combined tackles, Kuechly placed fourth in the league in that category, while defending seven passes and intercepting four as well.
His second season in the NFL was highlighted by his Week 16 performance against the Saints, but also by his putting up double-digit tackle numbers in matchups with five other teams, including the New England Patriots. During games in which Kuechly tallied more than 10 tackles, the Panthers went 4-2. Kuechly has carried his reputation as an excellent all-around linebacker from college to the professional ranks. His pass coverage was solid throughout the season and his four picks tied him for third most among NFL linebackers.
Against the Saints, Kuechly even picked off Brees to help the Carolina Panthers earn a 17-13 victory. The list of quarterbacks Kuechly has rattled with an interception includes Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and BC alum Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons.
Kuechly is not the league’s top pass-rusher, and he is rarely at the line to thwart a running play. Most of his tackles come as a second-to-last resort for the Carolina defense. He keeps rushers and tight ends running routes close to the line of scrimmage from getting into the Panthers’ secondary, especially after the catch, and he can help out in coverage as well. It is the middle linebacker’s ability to track down opponents between sidelines that remains his greatest attribute. Kuechly uses speed as a weapon to hunt down opponents. His 4.58 time in the 40-yard dash placed him fourth among those at his position at the 2012 NFL Combine.
His defensive work has contributed to dramatically improving the Panthers’ defense. In 2011, the defense ranked 28th in yards allowed per game. Last year, in the team’s first year with Kuechly, the Panthers finished 10th in that category before coming in second this season.