METAIRIE, La. — Sean Payton and Drew Brees have faced plenty of all-time great defensive players during their 12 years together with the New Orleans Saints. But they have never quite spoken about an opponent with the same reverence when it comes to the battle of wits as they did with Luke Kuechly this week.
“He’s one of the smartest football players I’ve seen, been around, had the chance to go up against,” Brees said of the Carolina Panthers linebacker.
Payton, meanwhile, gave a fantastic response when asked about the difficulty of facing a division rival for the third time this season in Sunday’s playoff opener.
“We know as a staff, as we’re watching film and particularly watching film of ourselves, I know every bit of film and every hour we spend watching film, Luke Kuechly’s watching the same film as diligently,” the coach said. “So you have to have plays that begin looking like something you’ve done — and then are something different. … He’s that in tune and is such a good communicator to [linebackers Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson].
“He’ll yawn at some of your formations if you don’t create some disguise and backfield depth. Every iota of your formation has to be looked at clearly so he’s not leaning one direction or another.”
Payton later gave Kuechly another huge compliment by comparing him to former Saints middle linebacker/”quarterback” of the defense Jonathan Vilma, who helped New Orleans win a Super Bowl after the 2009 season in a classic chess match against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
“You can see it in how he shades, how he stacks, how he aligns. You can see it in his communication. Clearly those are the same traits you saw when Vilma was here all the time,” Payton said. “Like you break the huddle, and right away his eyes are focused where they need to be: strength call, alignment, then immediately if he’s got any indication as to what he thinks [he adjusts]. Especially when you watch the end-zone copy [of the game tape], you just see his awareness as to what might be happening.
“You would say one of the No. 1 allies for good defensive football is formation and play recognition. In other words, every time they’re in strong right slot, it’s this, this or this. It’s not everything. So it’s the process of quickly deducting, ‘It can only be …’ And that’s something he does very well.”
Likewise, Kuechly expressed his admiration for both Brees and Payton while discussing the various challenges they have presented him over the years.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who comes from a defensive background, has also talked over the years about how he enjoys matching wits with Payton, who is known for his endless variety of formations and personnel groupings.
“He’s a fun guy to play against because of his ability to create matchups and not give you the same look twice and keep things switched up. On top of that, he’s got really good players,” said Kuechly, who stressed, “Those guys could line up in one formation all day and be successful just because of the way they execute and the players they have.
“He’s got a Hall of Fame quarterback, and those two running backs everybody knows about are good [Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara]. Everybody knows about [former Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr.], and Michael Thomas is a guy that deserves more credit than he gets. … He catches the ball. He’s big, he’s physical. He makes contested catches, hard catches.
“They have a good offense that starts with Drew and Sean Payton just drawing stuff up to get those guys in good situations. But you have to have guys that execute, and they do that.”
The results are about as mixed as you would expect. The Panthers have a 6-5 edge in games in which both Brees and Kuechly have played since Kuechly entered the league in 2012.
Brees has had a good deal of success, statistically, with a passer rating of 98.6 in those games, averaging 306.2 yards per game with 25 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
Kuechly is averaging 10.5 tackles per game in those games, with one interception.
However, Kuechly definitely feels as if he owes the Saints one after their first two meetings this season. Not only did the Saints win both games by double digits, 34-13 in Week 3 and 31-21 in Week 13, but they did it with the best two rushing efforts of the entire season against Carolina.
The Saints ran for 149 and 148 yards in those two games, with Ingram breaking off a 72-yard run in the Superdome in Week 13 and Kamara scoring on runs of 25 and 20 yards in the two games. No other team ran for more than 120 yards against the Panthers all season.
“We’ve just got to stop the run. We weren’t able to do that the last two games,” said Kuechly, who said tackling was specifically a problem for Carolina in those games. “That’s what’s made them so dangerous this year is they have both those guys back there that are very unique in what they do and they can carry a team and make it very difficult on the defense.”