Why Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis comprise NFL’s best linebacker duo

What makes the Carolina linebacker corps stand out in a league full of talent at the position? Mike Renner explains.

| 5 months ago
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Why Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis comprise NFL’s best linebacker duo

[Editor’s note: This is the second installment in Senior Analyst Mike Renner’s “Teaching Tape” article series, which takes a look at the best positional units across the NFL. Last week, Renner broke down the league-leading play of the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line.]

Earlier this offseason, every analyst at PFF was asked to put together their list for the Top 101 players of 2015, and the choice for No. 1 was easy to me. In Week 12 of last season, I did the first-run analysis for the Carolina Panthers’ demolition of the Dallas Cowboys, and in four years of working at PFF, I’ve never seen a more impressive performance from a linebacker than Luke Kuechly’s that day. Never mind that he missed three games over the course of the year, any player capable of doing that had to be No. 1 on the list.


In the end, I succumbed to well-reasoned arguments about other players’ bodies of work, and Kuechly ended up third on PFF’s official list, but at their peak, no linebacking corps changed the way opposing offenses had to play more than the Panthers, and that’s why they are the next installment in our look around the league’s most impressive units.

When analyzing the Panthers linebacking duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the first thing I noticed that makes them so special is their difficulty of assignment; they have the hardest job of any linebacking corps in the league. It starts with the fact that the Panthers played nickel defense (four down linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs) far more than any other team in the league last season. 73.6 percent of the Panthers’ defensive snaps a year ago came in nickel personnel, while the Steelers were the next closest at 66.2 percent. Most teams wouldn’t dare match up against a two-tight end set with only two linebackers, but the Panthers did it over five times a game, on average. This gives them the unenviable task of stopping the run with a much lighter box than opposing offenses. The results, though, speak for themselves.


While their run defense was superb as a whole, what makes them truly special is their prowess in coverage. One of the reasons the Panthers were in nickel so much is because, even against four- and five-WR sets, they never went into dime (six defensive backs). That means that defensive coordinator Sean McDermott trusted Thomas Davis and Kuechly so much that he felt comfortable with them having to cover wide receivers if need be.


Outside of the personnel aspect, the Panthers also asked a ton of their linebackers schematically. Carolina played quarters coverage (cover four) on 26.7 percent of their snaps last season, again the highest rate of any team in the league. Quarters asks their linebackers to cover a ton of ground. Below is an outline of each defenders’ basic zones in a quarters defense.


That’s obviously a very simplified version of a complicated defense that varies based on route concepts, but the key is that three underneath defenders are asked to cover all 53-and-one-third horizontal yards of the field. Now, there are a handful of variations on quarters, and the LBs’ responsibilities can differ greatly based on the formations, but it’s still a defense that requires those underneath defenders to be extremely disciplined in their assignments and route recognition, or else they’ll leave large holes in those underneath zones. And when it comes to reading route combinations, no one does it quite like the Carolina pair.


Kuechly and Davis are relied upon so much for the Panthers’ defensive identity, and own the first- and fifth-highest coverage grades, respectively, each of the past two seasons for LBs—it’s easy to see why they should be recognized as the top linebacking duo in the NFL. No one can match Kuechly’s instincts, while few have the fluid athleticism to match Davis. With all the losses in the Carolina secondary, don’t be surprised if they ask even more out of the pair in 2016—and be even less surprised when they deliver.

[More: See Mike Renner’s article from last week breaking down the Cowboys’ NFL-best offensive line.]

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • crosseyedlemon

    It’s one thing to look dominate against bad teams from the NFC East but this season the Panthers will have some tougher opponents to face. It’s also hard to imagine them posting a +20 turnover ratio again…so this season won’t be the cakewalk they had last year.

    • ThinkingisHard

      Yea you’re right it’s not like they didn’t dominate the number two team in the NFC. Oh wait they did…

    • JudoPrince

      The Panthers dominated the Packers, Redskins, Seahawks, and Cardinals last season, with two of those performances coming in the playoffs. PLEASE tell me whom else they should have played in the conference that was better? Themselves?

      Who knows what will happen this year, as teams have new rosters and there is always the injury bug. But this team was by far and away the NFC’s best, perhaps even the entire league. Only a defense playing at a historic level could stop them.

    • Nunya

      Who do you consider the tougher opponents this season? We played and beat the top 2 NFC west teams last year (the Shehawks twice) and the top AFC west team in the SuperBowl. …we face the NFCW and the AFCW teams this season….so out of that we are looking at 2 teams, maybe 3 if you count Oakland that we didn’t face last year that I would consider relatively tough….Rams, Chiefs and I guess you can throw in the Raiders…..personally I don’t see this season being any tougher than last season and add to the mix a 6’5 1K yard endzone monster with Kelvin Benjamin coming back to the top scoring offense with last year’s 6’6 240 lb MVP with a chip on his shoulder who was 1 passing TD short of the most in the NFL and 1 RUSHING TD short of the most in the NFL and the first player in HISTORY to have atleast 30 passing and 10 rushing TDs in a single season……along with the 2 best linebackers in the league and arguably a top 5 DT in KK Short. …ffs it’s almost unfair the amount of talent on this team but all ppl look to is the loss of Josh Norman who is at most an above average ZONE corner that ALMOST ALWAYS had safety or LB help….I feel sorry for the league this year, you don’t have a clue what you are in for lmmfao……

      • JBALL

        AGREE…..glad we have people who actually watch football give their insight.

  • JudoPrince

    This article explains perfectly why the 2015 first round pick was Shaq Thompson.

    • JBALL

      Shaq was the best athlete in the 2015 draft…

  • Disgruntled_Gorilla

    No troll here, crosseyed lemon is partially correct but not for the reasons he stated. No one can question the Panthers’ legitimacy last year, they beat 4 of the other 5 NFC playoff teams and that alone speaks for itself. But that was last year and there are things that have changed this year.
    One thing this article did leave out was the Norman effect. Let’s not forget when you got a corner that can go 1-on-1 against the opponent’s best weapon and needs no safety help, it frees up the defenders underneath to jump routes and be aggressive at going for picks. I think losing Norman, Harper, and Tillman will have some effect on that. And Thomas Davis has been one of the best LBs over the last few seasons, but having had that injury right before the superbowl and at age 33, he may be nearing his last leg. Most of their core players are back so it’ll come down to injuries and other side factors. I think we can assume though that they’re not going to go 15-1 again this year, probably more like 11-5 or 12-4 something like that.

    • Jon Campbell

      Davis and Keek have been doing this for a couple of years now, before JNo even really emerged as a top corner. And I don’t think TD’s arm injury is really a sign of anything. But I agree, it’s difficult for any team to duplicate a 15-1 season.

    • JBALL

      Norman was a scheme DB, he didn’t always cover the number 1 WR. He stayed on the outside. At the end of the season, teams were lining their best receiver in the slot to stay away from him. In these situations, the coverage would be left up to the nickel corner or the LB’s, not Norman. TD and Kuechly had more picks than a lot of secondary’s in the league. Get you facts right before you try to make yourself sound like you know what you’re talking about.

      • Disgruntled_Gorilla

        My bad on that one, but point in being if you were an opposing QB, you didn’t have a lot of places you could go with the football because of the outside being shutdown by him. That in no way diminishes Kuech or Davis btw, it actually goes to show how complete the team was/is to make very good LBs even better.
        I don’t really know what to expect this year, a team getting back KB is going to be tough to stop, but then again most the other teams out there up in the NFC North and East have also had some pretty good offseasons this year, and I’d say look out for Atlanta, they may be the dark horse, Dan Quinn’s got quite an apparatus he’s assembling down there. I think the NFC West is in for a downturn compared to recent years as the Seahawks have now lost a plethora of O-linemen, stud LB in Irvin, and their running game won’t be as good. Arizona probably still wins the div, but I think they’ll drop a bit from 13-3 to 10-6.

      • Ninja Unmatched

        I am not 100% convinced of J norman just yet. I think he is a lil overrated and I will be looking to see how he does without having the Carolina D to make him look better. i dont see him as the shutdown corner just yet nor worth the money the Redskins (is that still their name now?) put into him. but we will see soon as he will have the chance to show improve.

        With all of the different defensive scenarios involved it is hard to say really how any team will actually perform but Carolina has a few newbies, one I know will make his presence known.

      • Ninja Unmatched

        I do remember seeing norman get burned by a few including ODB despite the bickering

  • AJ

    Not that I disagree with the analysis, but the running play shown with the Eagles is not a great example of Davis in run defense. PFF actually says run defense is Davis’s main weakness (I could be wrong, but I think he had a negative grade against the run).

    In the play above that I’m referring to, that’s more a product of the zone blocking of the Eagles. On that particular play, the o-lineman #64 had a decision to either block Davis or the DB. He chose the DB and left Davis unblocked. The play could have been a successful run had Davis been blocked instead and the running back (Murray) made his one-cut up field. If anything, he has a much greater chance of breaking a tackle against a DB than a linebacker.