NFL

Panthers struggling to replace Peppers; Winless team on track to have about half the sacks it had

FOX Sports Sean Jensen, The Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Sun Times
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When free agency opened March 5, defensive end Julius Peppers was the most coveted player.

A player in his prime, with his credentials, rarely becomes available.

In 2008, the Minnesota Vikings traded one first- and two third-round picks to the Kansas City Chiefs to acquire defensive end Jared Allen, then rewarded him with a record contract.

The Vikings jumped from eighth in sacks to fourth in Allen's first season. But the better indicator of his impact might be what happened to the Chiefs. They went from being tied for ninth in the NFL in sacks with Allen (37 in 2007) to last without him (10 in 2008).

Since the Bears signed him to a contract that included $42 million in guarantees, Peppers has notched two sacks and forced two fumbles to give some teeth to a defensive line desperate for help.

The Bears and Carolina Panthers have four sacks apiece, but the latter team sorely misses Peppers' presence. Last season, the Panthers had 31 sacks. This season, they are on pace for just more than half that figure.

''It's very challenging,'' Panthers coach John Fox said of trying to replace Peppers. ''That guy was the second player picked in the draft. This organization had to go 1-15 to be in the position to get a player like that. The guy's proved that he's a good player, and I'm sure the people in Chicago are real happy to have him.''

Added Panthers defensive end Everette Brown: ''He left some shoes to fill, and that's what great players do.''

Former Panthers defensive lineman Brentson Buckner called Peppers a ''once-in-a-lifetime player'' and said his former team has done a ''horrible job'' of replacing him.

''You don't just replace 81 sacks in eight years,'' Buckner said. ''You hope you can bring some people who can be good and work in their system. But look at their draft and what they've done. Everette Brown is an undersized defensive end. Charles Johnson is more of a rotation type of guy. Tyler [Brayton] is a journeyman.''

Of those three veterans, Johnson was the most accomplished, registering six sacks in 2008.

The X-factor for the Panthers is rookie Greg Hardy, a sixth-round pick. He has had three pressures and forced one fumble, but he doesn't have a sack.

''This is a big game,'' Hardy said. ''It's hyped up -- Julius Peppers coming back into town, the Bears are a winning team. It would be a big deal to get a sack in general, but this week it would mean a little bit more to the fans.''

Yet Panthers defensive line coach Brian Baker remains optimistic and refuses to feel sorry for himself.

''Certainly no disrespect to Pep, but it's kind of, 'Move on,' and that's the approach I take,'' Baker said. ''Regardless, you have the same responsibility to produce the best product for your franchise on the field.''

Besides, there's hope: The Panthers led the league with 19 preseason sacks.

''And most of those came against the first unit, so it wasn't like we were piling them up against backups,'' Baker said.

Baker added that he would be discouraged if his linemen were doing everything right and weren't producing.

''Because that means they're not good enough, ability-wise,'' he said. ''But that's not the case.''

TRADE REVISITED

So far, the Bears seem to have gotten the better of an offseason trade with the Panthers.

Safety Chris Harris is starting, he's sixth on the team with 19 tackles and he has forced one fumble. For the Panthers, linebacker Jamar Williams has only two special-teams tackles and won't play today because of a neck injury.

Still, Harris hasn't accomplished a goal: to generate turnovers.

''I feel we're OK, but we're not quite where we want to be,'' he said. ''We still don't have an interception back there. We've got to pick that up.

''That would be big.''

JERSEYS ON THE MOVE

The Dallas Cowboys might be in last place in the NFC East, but they are first in moving merchandise, according to NFLShop.com. Since April, the Cowboys are No. 1, followed by the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bears are ninth.

In terms of jersey sales, the Cowboys lead the league with three players in the top 25: Tony Romo (seventh), Jason Witten (19th) and Dez Bryant (22nd). Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos is No. 1.

Surprisingly, Peppers isn't among the top 25, but he is in the top 50.

STUFFING THE RUN

The Bears seem determined to get their running game going, but the Panthers have two linebackers who are making a big ''impact.'' According to STATS, the Panthers have two players among the top 10 in impact tackles, defined as those made for gains of two yards or less.

Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons leads the league with 22 impact tackles, followed by Panthers middle linebacker Dan Connor with 17. Tied for eighth is Panthers strong-side linebacker James Anderson with 14.

PLAYING THROUGH PAIN

Bears guard Roberto Garza will make his 69th consecutive start today, but he's playing through pain.

Garza was limited in one practice and missed another in the week leading up to the game against the New York Giants. While he didn't miss any time this past week, Garza is fighting through a knee injury.

Tagged: Bears, Cowboys, Broncos, Vikings, Panthers, Steelers, Roberto Garza, Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, Everette Brown, Tim Tebow

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