Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Bobby Rainey (43) fumbles the football after being hit by Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. The Panthers recovere
Phelan M. Ebenhack
September 09, 2014

Hey Drew Brees, chances are Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has a pretty good idea of what play you're going to run before you take a snap.

That also goes for the Detroit's Matthew Stafford.

NFL middle linebackers are expected to know what's going to happen before it happens. They engage in ongoing battles of wits in pre-snap chess matches with opposing signal callers.

Kuechly, the AP's Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, is considered by coach Ron Rivera the team's ''defensive quarterback'' on the field.

Kuechly, and others who play the position, is required to do more than just run down ball carriers, shadow tight ends and backs in coverage and sack the quarterback.

They have to be smart and able to adjust on the fly. Middle linebackers are responsible for receiving the play call from the sideline on his headset, setting the defensive front, deciphering the play call and making pre-snap adjustments to make sure his teammates are in the correct place.

If Kuechly isn't on his game, chances are neither is Carolina's No. 2-ranked defense.

''It's fun when you see something and think, `I know what they're doing,''' said Kuechly, who forced a key late fourth quarter fumble to seal Carolina's 20-14 win Sunday at Tampa Bay. ''I like to line up and know, OK, this is what offense they're in and this is what their tendencies are. This is what their top plays are out of this formation - now let's go.''

Kuechly said his pre-snap reads start by analyzing the fullback-guard or center-guard combination, depending on the offensive formation.

''One of those guys is going to tell you where the play is going,'' Kuechly said.

For instance, if the offense comes out in base 21 front - two running backs and a tight end - lined up in an I-formation, Kuechly checks the fullback.

If he's lined up offset, it might give Kuechly a tip.

''It might be a play action or a flood pass,'' Kuechly said. ''If the guard downblocks and the fullback inserts in the B gap it's a lead weak or a play action. Then, as the play develops you have play your responsibilities.''

Those responsibilities aren't that much different if you play a 3-4 defense, said Titans middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard. He played with Denver last year, but joined Tennessee they transition to a 3-4 look.

''You got to control the A gap (the space between the guard and center) in the run game, so it's pretty much the same thing'' regardless of scheme, Woodyard said.

Kansas City Chiefs middle linebacker Derrick Johnson said his role has changed over the course of nine seasons. He's forced to do more thinking, more analyzing and more communicating than ever before.

''We're a lot more of the quarterback on the defensive side,'' said Johnson, who tore his Achilles in the Chiefs' loss Sunday to Tennessee. ''A lot of teams do hurry-up now who didn't do it a while back. Now it's one of those things where I have to tell everybody, `Hey, play this front, do this and this,' and get everybody lined up.''

Every once in a while, a middle linebacker is faced with an alignment he's not seen from an opponent before during film study.

Kuechly said when that happens he refers back to his mental rolodex of what plays other teams have run out of that formation in the past.

''We just do what our rules say and we should be all right,'' said Kuechly, whose 320 tackles the last two seasons are the most in the NFL.

Like most middle linebackers, Kuechly has the power to change the defensive play call, although he said he only does once or twice at game at most. Instead, when he picks up on a tip from the offense he'll move his teammates based upon predetermined adjustments within the defensive call.

He does so by a series of demonstrative hand and voice signals, similar to what Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning does before most plays.

Rivera played linebacker for the Bears for nine seasons from 1984-1992, playing alongside Mike Singletary. He said the responsibilities of a middle linebacker have changed significantly over the past 30 years.

''It's no longer a brute position,'' Rivera said.

Rivera said with offensive play-calling ever evolving, playing middle linebackers has become more of a thinking man's game - which he said has made film preparation all the more important.

He said that is what helps separate Kuechly from a lot of young linebackers coming into the league.

Teammates say if they always know where to look for Kuechly - in the film room.

Rivera said when Kuechly watches film he doesn't focus on the action, he looks at play development.

''Luke anticipating and knowing what he's going to get, that's huge,'' Rivera said. ''As a middle linebacker you need the ability to take what you're seeing in your mind and transfer it on to the field.''

The good middle linebackers all do it, and Kuechy is one of the best at his craft.

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AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee and Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Missouri contributed to this report.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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