Peppers vs. Gross again – only this time it counts

Jordan Gross estimates he’s lined up opposite Julius Peppers

more than a thousand times in seven years of practices with the

Panthers.

On Sunday, they’ll go one-on-one again – only this time in a

real game for the first time- when the five-time Pro Bowl pick

Peppers returns to Carolina with the Chicago Bears.

”It’s not like there are any easy weeks in the NFL. This one is

just a little more special than others,” said Gross, the Panthers’

left tackle. ”I’ve been going against Pep as long as I’ve been in

the pros, and he’s always given me a handful. It’s not going to be

any different on Sunday.”

Gross got a quick introduction to the NFL as a first-round pick

in 2003, facing Peppers in training camp a year after the 6-foot-7

defensive end was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.

While Gross flip-flopped from right and left tackle early in his

career, he eventually settled into the left tackle spot. That meant

daily competition with Peppers, the speedy and athletic right end

whose 81 sacks in eight years with Carolina is a franchise

record.

”You come in and you go against the rookie of the year and a

Pro Bowler, it makes you better,” Gross said. ”I owe a lot to

going against him and (Mike) Rucker as a young guy as well, but

mostly Pep. I’d like to think that hopefully I made him a little

better.”

Peppers had some steep competition, too. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound

Gross is a 2008 Pro Bowl pick, anchoring an offensive line that

last season allowed DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to

become the first teammates to each rush for over 1,100 yards.

”Me and Jordan, we helped each other grow as players a lot,”

Peppers said, ”practicing against each other and having those

training camp battles.”

There will be few surprises when they meet on Sunday. Gross has

seen all of Peppers’ moves and Peppers knows Gross’ strengths and

weaknesses.

”I’ve never had this much familiarity with somebody I’m going

against, and he could probably say the same thing about me,” Gross

said. ”But it’s the whole offensive line. He’s going to be on the

right side probably as much as the left. He’s a guy you’ve got to

account for. He’s a great player, and he makes a lot of plays. He’s

done a lot this year already.”

Peppers has been given more freedom with the Bears (3-1), who

signed him to a six-year, $91.5 million deal in March. He decides

once the offense break the huddle where to line up to make the most

impact.

”That’s the main difference, more freedom on each side,”

Peppers said. ”We run a similar defense to what we ran down there,

but I can take the side I want to go to and play on that

side.”

Peppers’ return to Charlotte comes following a lengthy contract

dispute that ended this spring with Carolina allowing him to leave

in free agency without compensation.

Gross thinks the fans will and should give him a positive

reception, even with the Panthers (0-4) off to their worst start in

12 years.

”He was a great asset to this team,” Gross said. ”He did a

lot for the Panthers, and he was a captain with me. I had no qualms

about what he did in this uniform. I thought he was a great player

here. I’m looking forward to playing against him. It’s going to be

a lot of fun.”

Gross doesn’t know how he’ll fare, noting ”just because I knew

it was coming didn’t always mean I could stop it” in practice.

Peppers, too, is intrigued to see how he’ll match up against Gross

when it counts.

”It’s really a challenge because I never really played against

him in a game situation,” Peppers said. ”I’m wondering how I can

do against him.”

Notes: Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams (illness) practiced

Thursday after sitting out a day earlier. … WR Steve Smith

(ankle) was still in a protective boot, while S Sherrod Martin

(concussion) and RT Jeff Otah (knee) also remained sidelined. …

LB Jamar Williams (neck) missed practice after being limited

Wednesday. … WR Armanti Edwards said he’s preparing to play

Sunday following WR Dwayne Jarrett’s release. Edwards has been

inactive the first four games. … Coach John Fox was guarded in

response to Peppers’ criticism from Wednesday that neither he nor

GM Marty Hurney told him directly they were going to let him leave

in free agency. ”He knows how I feel and I know how he feels and I

don’t share all those things in the newspaper,” Fox said.