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Want to see great inside linebackers? Watch Cardinals vs. Panthers Sunday

What do you watch football for?

Your favorite team? Fantasy football? Because you want to know immediately if you need to leave town before the shylock breaks your legs over gambling debts?

You ever sit down to watch football for the chance to see excellent middle linebacker play?

Probably not. But if ever there was a week to, this would be it.

This week marks the return of Daryl Washington from suspension. And despite any excitement one might have had for Carson Palmer, Jonathan Cooper or Bruce Arians’ new offense heading into training camp, Cardinal fans knew that success in 2013 would hinge on how much better a very good defense would play once it didn’t have to carry the entire load. Of course, the overall might of the defense hasn’t been easy to gauge while the team’s Pro Bowl linebacker has been sitting on the sidelines due to personal failures.

Through four games, the Cardinals are ranked 14th defensively without Washington. Assuming he’s in shape and ready to pick up where he left off last season, how much better does D-Wash then make this unit?

Well, at this time last season, the Cardinals were 4-0 and the defense ranked second in the NFL in efficiency. Washington was the key, having recorded three sacks through four games en route to a career-best nine.

The guy is a tremendous talent, one of the fastest linebackers in the league, the team’s best rusher and a highly versatile defender. Where the Cardinals have missed No. 58 most this season is in pass coverage. The Saints’ Jimmy Graham and St. Louis’ Jared Cook are still causing DC Todd Bowles to have night terrors. Washington will give Bowles a player strong enough and athletic enough to match up with elite tight ends.

Yes, the return of Daryl Washington is crucial to any chance the Cardinals have of making the playoffs in 2013.

Of course, Washington won’t even be the best middle linebacker on the field Sunday.

That distinction belongs to Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. Actually, Kuechly may be the best middle linebacker on any football field in the world this weekend.

“Thirty-one general managers would trade their middle linebacker for Kuechly,” said ESPN analyst Jon Gruden of the second-year pro. “You lose (Brian) Urlacher. You lose Ray Lewis. Someone’s got to take the torch. He’s got the torch.”

Not Patrick Willis? Not Sean Lee?

Nope. Luke Kuechly.

“I’d say that on literally at least 75 percent of Carolina’s defensive plays Kuechly was near the ball when the carrier was brought down,wrote CBS sports’ Will Brinson.

I can’t verify that stat, but he did lead the NFL in tackles as a rookie, prompting one scout to claim “he’s always in the right spot.”

NFL analysts have thrown around “NFL Defensive Player of the Year” predictions for Kuechly. The Panthers traded away veteran Jon Beason this week because he’s never regaining the starting MLB spot he lost to Kuechly last year. And after holding the Seahawks to 12 points and shutting out Eli Manning and the Giants, folks are now beginning to discuss if Kuechly is the leader of the league’s best front seven.

Quarterbacks? Please.

Big play wide receivers? Not hardly.

Edge pass rushers? Uh-uh.

The things to watch this Sunday in Glendale are the middle linebackers.

Jack Lambert would be so proud.

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