Carolina Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein’s first career NFL start last Sunday was eerily similar to the first start for the man he replaced.
In 2005, Chase Blackburn got the nod for the New York Giants against Kansas City in Week 16 when linebacker Antonio Pierce went out with a leg injury. Blackburn had nine tackles in the 27-17 Giants victory.
Eight years later, Klein, a rookie linebacker, started in place of the injured Blackburn and recorded five tackles, two for a loss, and a sack in Carolina’s 10-9 victory against San Francisco.
“It’s always good when you give an opportunity to a young guy and he takes advantage of it, because there are only so many opportunities that you’re going to get in this league,” Blackburn said. “And the guys that don’t last very long are the ones that don’t seize the moment. Obviously he was able to do that.”
With Blackburn still out with a foot injury, Klein will get another start at weakside linebacker, against the New England Patriots on Monday night.
Klein, selected in the fifth round of April’s draft out of Iowa State, can play all three linebacker positions. Carolina coach Ron Rivera has been impressed with Klein’s “hit-and-wrap” tackling as well as his aggressive nature.
“He’s got good vision, drops well into coverage and plays laterally very nicely, so that part of it’s good,” Rivera said. “The thing I do like is he’s a downhill, physical player.”
Klein admitted to having some nerves before the 49ers game, and it showed on the second play of the game.
Klein’s assignment was fullback Bruce Miller. He was supposed to be outside of Miller and take him to the flat, but instead he got caught inside. Miller caught a short pass from Colin Kaepernick and gained 10 yards.
“That was an assignment bust on me, but after that I kind of shored things up, but still a lot of kinks and things to work out from the rest of the game film,” Klein said. “I played a good game and made plays when I needed to, but I didn’t make as many plays as I should have.”
But the plays he did make came at crucial times. On the 49ers’ next possession, running back Frank Gore ran off the left guard on a third-and-1 from the San Francisco 35. Klein met Gore in the backfield and stopped him for a loss, forcing a punt.
Klein recorded his first career sack in the second quarter. He blitzed off the edge and stayed with Kaepernick on the play-action fake. As Kaepernick tried to stiff arm Klein, the quarterback grabbed Klein’s facemask – a penalty that would be declined – and Klein was credited with a sack of 14 yards by having Kaepernick in his grasp.
“He just played confident. For his first start ever, against San Francisco on the road, that was cool to see,” middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “I’m confident with him out there. He knows what he’s doing, he talks, we get along.
“We’re on the same page, he works hard and we communicate well.”
That communication has gotten even better this week. Klein said running with the first-team defense and expecting to start compared to filling in last week is a benefit.
Rivera said he pointed to Blackburn and told Klein that he could be like Blackburn one day – a “crusty old veteran” with eight years experience and two Super Bowl rings. That’d be OK with Klein.
“I’m fine with that, especially hopefully get those Super Bowl rings,” he said. “I hope to make my career last as long as it can. That just comes with being knowledgeable, knowing the game and being open to playing any position and doing what’s asked of you.”
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