Just a couple of weeks into his third NFL season, Luke Kuechly already has been decorated in a manner only a precious few NFL defenders have previously.
But to Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell, a former teammate in Carolina, it's what Kuechly didn't have at the outset of last season that helped define the Panthers' middle linebacker.
"He didn't even have cable (television) until week three," Mitchell remembered. "He stays at the stadium until 7 p.m. and watches film. He gets there at 7:30 in the morning. He's just totally obsessed with football, his girlfriend, and his family, and it shows."
Mitchell's best recollection of what Kuechly can mean to a defense is from last Dec. 22, when the Panthers hosted the Saints two weeks after having been beaten, 31-13, in New Orleans.
"I think he had 25 tackles and a pick," Mitchell insisted.
Kuechly was officially credited with 24 tackles (nine solo) and an interception in Carolina's 17-13 triumph over New Orleans. It was an exclamation point to Kuechly being named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and a testament to Kuechly becoming just the eighth player in NFL history to be so honored after having also won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award (2012).
Kuechly joined Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Lawrence Taylor, Dana Stubblefield, Charles Woodson, Brian Urlacher, and Terrell Suggs in that exclusive club.
That's what the Steelers will be confronting on Sunday night in Carolina, a challenge they're respecting and at the same time embracing.
The Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the game against the Carolina Panthers.
"Heck, yeah," said center Maurkice Pouncey, who, along with guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster figures to see plenty of Kuechly at Bank of America Stadium. "You play a player like that it kind of gets you in the game. He'll be out there with a lot of energy, you got to match it. I mean, I'm not about to throw a pep rally, but it's going to be nice."
Added DeCastro, "It's fun. You always like to play the best, right? To be the best you got to beat the best. That's the saying, right?"
The Steelers perceive the Panthers' defensive scheme as one predicated on linemen freeing up linebackers such as Kuechly and Thomas Davis to roam the field and make plays. Kuechly (6-foot-3, 238 pounds) has taken advantage well enough to post an NFL-leading 340 tackles since 2012.
"He's just so smart," DeCastro said. "He knows what you're doing before you're doing it, just flying around out there. He reads things so quickly. He's not a huge physical specimen – he's fast and athletic – but he's in the right spot every time. That says a lot about him. He's pretty spot-on when it comes to being a student, kind of a professor of the game."
Mitchell signed on to play free safety for the Steelers this season, but continues to be influenced by his younger, less-experienced former teammate.
"Seeing how he played last year," Mitchell acknowledged, "he actually inspired me to do the little things better."