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Best Panther Linebacker Performance: Dan Morgan or Luke Kuechly?

By Colin Hoggard and Daniel Guy
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(Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

(Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

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When speaking of dominant performances by a Carolina Panthers middle linebacker, Dan Morgan’s 25 tackle effort in Super Bowl 38 has long stood as the benchmark. Two weeks ago, against the New Orleans Saints, however, Luke Kuechly may have set the new standard.

The games were different in terms of stakes, with Morgan’s coming in the biggest game on a neutral site, while Kuechly’s came in a must-win regular season game at home. The offenses of their opponents, the 2003 Patriots and 2013 Saints, were similar. Neither was a good running team, both ranking between 25th and 27th in their respective years (the Patriots finished with less than 10 yards more per game than the Saints over the season). The ‘13 Saints passing game was more prolific than the ‘03 Patriots, to the tune of nearly 1500 more yards on the season. Both attacks relied on backs catching passes and used multiple formations to confuse the defense and of course, both featured two of the best quarterbacks of their generation.

The Weapons
2003 Patriots: RB Antowain Smith (642 rush yds), RB Kevin Faulk (638 rush yds, 440 rec yds), WR Deion Branch (803 rec yds), WR David Givens (510 rec yds), WR Troy Brown (472 rec yds), TE Daniel Graham (409 rec yds), and TE Christian Fauria (285 rec yds)
2013 Saints: RB Pierre Thomas (549 rush yds, 513 rec yds), RB Mark Ingram (386 rush yds), RB Darren Sproles (220 rush yds, 604 rec yds), TE Jimmy Graham (1215 rec yds), WR Marques Colston (943 rec yds), and WR Kenny Stills (641 rec yds).

The Playcalling
‘03 Patriots: 83 plays (481 yds), 35 rushes (127 yds), 43 pass plays (354 yds)
‘13 Saints: 81 plays (365 yds), 30 rushes (126 yds), 51 pass plays (239 yds)

The Tackles
Dan Morgan – 17 rush tackles (13 assisted), 8 pass tackles (2 assisted)
Looking back at Morgan’s impressive night, one thing becomes clear. He dominated from the right hash to the numbers, recording over half of his tackles in that area from the line of scrimmage to five yards downfield. Only two of Morgan’s 25 tackles were made outside the numbers. He was in on the tackle on seventeen of the Patriots 35 rushing plays. Antowain Smith scored on a 2-yard rush, so it’s fair to say Morgan was in on half of the Panthers rushing tackles. Morgan also recorded eight tackles in the passing game. Morgan recorded five red zone tackles, all of which were assisted. Here’s the full tackle chart for Morgan:

Dan Morgan Tackle Chart

Dan Morgan Tackle Chart

Luke Kuechly – 15 rush tackles (13 assisted), 11 pass tackles (3 assisted) and an INT
One of the first things that jumps out about this performance vs. Morgan’s is the lack of a pattern. It’s difficult to pinpoint an area on the field where Kuechly dominated. Both performances had three rushing tackles at the line of scrimmage. Unlike Morgan’s, which took place in that right hash to numbers area he dominated, Kuechly had one at the left hash and two outside the numbers. Those two represent as many tackles as Morgan made outside the numbers, total. Kuechly on the other hand, recorded nine tackles outside the numbers. Like Morgan, Kuechly was in on half of the rushing tackles for the day (15/30), but lack the grouping that Morgan’s showed. Here’s the full tackle chart:

Luke Kuechly Tackle Chart

Luke Kuechly Tackle Chart

One thing that stands out between the two Linebacker’s historic games is their performance in pass defense. In looking at both players games, it’s evident that current Panther Luke Kuechly was more of a difference maker in this area. Morgan had eight tackles in pass defense to Kuechly’s eleven and when you dig deeper the differences become even more evident. Where Dan Morgan had just one play where he was “shadowing” an offensive player (TE Daniel Graham), Kuechly was asked to shadow a Saints playmaker seven times (RB Thomas 3x, TE Graham 2x, WR Colston 1x and RB Sproles 1x) throughout the course of the game. Kuechly was able to matchup extremely well against the Saints best offensive weapon Jimmy Graham. On the two plays he was in man coverage against Graham, Kuechly limited him to a four yard reception on one and intercepted Drew Brees on the other.

Perhaps a reason for Morgan’s lesser numbers as a pass defender was the way former Defensive Coordinator Mike Trgovac used him as a blitzing pass rusher. Against the Saints, Kuechly blitzed quarterback Drew Brees four times (two were delayed blitzes), with one generating a QB pressure. Morgan was used as a blitzer eleven times in the Super Bowl, generating four QB pressures on Tom Brady. With Morgan blitzing almost three times as much as Kuechly, some discrepancies in the passing game may be expected.

Final Thoughts
After re-watching the two games we saw two special performances from Kuechly and Morgan, but also two very different players. Morgan, in his third season, was a ballistic missile. Firing out of his stance and exploding into the target downhill. He also performed well as a blitzer, using his large frame to overpower blockers at times. As a pass defender Morgan was placed in zone coverage almost exclusively, but for the most part did a good job filling the middle of the field, and patrolling the flats. By contrast, Kuechly, in his second season, plays a game that’s more cerebral in nature. On several occasions Kuechly moves another defender on the field because he already has the play diagnosed. Instead of firing downhill in the run game, Kuechly hesitates just long enough to read the play and pursue. This allows him to make a number of plays from sideline to sideline. In the passing game, Kuechly’s coverage ability allows for him to be placed on an island against the Saints explosive pass catchers. So, which was the best? Discuss on twitter with @ColinWFNZ and @danny_g13

Note: The official tackle totals for Morgan and Kuechly were 18 and 24, respectively, but the Panthers counted 25 and 26. All efforts were made to correctly identify the tackles that the Panthers recognize.

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