With ‘new challenge’ at OLB, Peppers wants to prove doubters wrong
GREEN BAY, Wis. — There were many reasons that Julius Peppers chose to sign with the Green Bay Packers this offseason. Of course being on a Super Bowl-caliber team was important to him, but when Peppers was told of the role that the Packers envisioned for him, the 13th-year veteran was sold.
Rather than playing defensive end in a 4-3 scheme as Peppers has for so much of his career, Green Bay offered him the opportunity to play quite a bit as an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 system. Now that Peppers has been through a few training camp practices in that spot, the 34-year-old believes it might’ve been the best position for him all along.
"I actually think it fits my skill set better than just being down every play," Peppers said. "I’m having fun doing it. I’m just enjoying it."
Peppers is well aware that there are people who don’t agree that it will suit him well. It’s been written and stated by various media outlets and NFL observers that Peppers showed significant decline last season with the Chicago Bears. And if that’s the case, taking on additional responsibilities would seem to be the wrong career decision. But all of that just fuels Peppers’ desire to master this new skill.
"It is a new challenge and I’m looking forward to not only proving to myself that I can do it but proving to the outsiders who don’t think I can do it," Peppers said.
Those "outsiders" look at Peppers’ 2013 statistics (7.0 sacks) and compare it to what he did for the decade before that when he averaged more than 10-plus sacks from 2002-12. That’s obviously a dropoff by his standards. But in Peppers’ mind, that’s just it. Ranking third among active NFL players in career sacks has the standards higher for him than they are for most pass-rushers.
"You look at my last year; was it one of my better years? Probably not, you know, statistically," he said. "But if you compare it to a lot of the guys who played last year, it was better than a lot of guys. So, I don’t really think I need to revitalize anything, just improve upon what I did last year. That’s not going to be easy to do, but I should be able to do it."
He has a good point. If Peppers’ sack total from 2013 was compared to what the Packers had to work with, he would’ve been just one sack away from leading Green Bay in that category. Clay Matthews’ 7.5 sacks was best on the team, followed by defensive lineman Mike Daniels with 6.5.
With such a unique combination of size (6-foot-7, 287 pounds) and athleticism, Peppers is a rare breed. That he’s been able to avoid injuries and miss only two games in 12 NFL seasons has also helped him be able to try something new this late in his career.
As part of his new assignment, Peppers has been dropping back in coverage on occasion during Green Bay’s practices. That’s something he admits that he "didn’t do very much at all," before adding "it’s nothing I can’t get comfortable doing and get good at."
While there are several ways in which he and Matthews can complement one another, right now Peppers is the new guy at an unfamiliar position. But by having a respected two-time All-Pro to turn to on the other edge at outside linebacker, Peppers can learn some of the tricks of the trade from Matthews.
"The main thing is having him out there to communicate with him," Peppers said. "He’s been a big help so far because I don’t quite have a grasp on everything at this point, but when he’s out there I can lean on him and ask him certain things."
Head coach Mike McCarthy has been pleased with Peppers’ ability to drop back in coverage so far, but he doesn’t want anyone to be confused as to the main reason the Packers gave out $7.5 million in guaranteed money to bring the eight-time Pro Bowl selection to Green Bay.
"He’s very athletic, (so) I’m not surprised, but the way he’s played in space has been impressive," McCarthy said. "(But) he’s here to go towards the quarterback, we all understand that."
That’s the part of Peppers’ job description that had Matthews so excited when the signing happened.
"There’s a reason we brought him in here; it’s help create pressure on the quarterback along with myself and the guys in the middle," Matthews said. "You look at a lot of defenses that are pretty good in this league, they have pass rushers that can get after the quarterback and get them off their spot, and I think that was clearly evident in the Super Bowl last year."
Peppers knows how to get after quarterbacks, as 118 of them (including new teammate Aaron Rodgers) have found out since he was drafted second overall in 2002. But that’s old news. Doing something new as an outside linebacker/defensive end (as he’s listed on the Packers official roster) — also known as the elephant position — is a test that Peppers really wanted to take on.
"A chance to stand up, move around, drop, rush, play in different positions was one of the things that made me want to come here in the first place," he said.
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