Packers could get more out of Peppers with less
Going into the 1994 NFL season, Charles Haley was a 30-year-old outside pass rusher with a bad back.
In the previous two years with the Dallas Cowboys, he'd had six sacks and four sacks, and he wasn't changing games like he had earlier in his career with the San Francisco 49ers.
So the Cowboys' coaching staff devised a plan to reduce the strain on his back and get Haley's best when it needed him most. Haley remained a starter in name but played primarily on passing downs, and his job was to get the quarterback.
The result? Haley returned to his game-changing ways, finished with 12½ sacks and was named All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl. In the same role the next season, he had 10½ sacks in 13 games, again went to the Pro Bowl and had a sack in the Cowboys' Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh.
"Down-and-distance situations, that's when he really got involved," said Jim Eddy, who was the Cowboys' linebackers coach in '94 and '95. "We had a good rundown on the opposition, we had a good idea when they were in a passing mode, and we wanted (Haley) in the game to get up the field and sack the quarterback."
Sometimes less is more.
Which gets us to the Green Bay Packers' Julius Peppers. General manager Ted Thompson made a rare plunge into big-money free agency in the offseason and signed Peppers to a three-year contract that will pay him $8.5 million this year, $9.5 million if he's still with the team in 2015, and $8 million in $2016.
Thompson signed the 34-year-old Peppers (118½ career sacks) in hopes he still can change games as a pass rusher.
The Packers' coaching staff is charged with doing everything it can to make that happen. Though Peppers doesn't have a bad back like Haley, and though he's a freakish athlete, he's still old at a position that requires explosive speed. So to best take advantage, the Packers should think long and hard about using him like the Cowboys did Haley. Less is more.
The Packers have the other defensive ends/outside linebackers in Mike Neal and Nick Perry to make it happen. Regardless, the Packers didn't sign Peppers to stop the run or be a complete player. They signed him to disrupt and sack quarterbacks, and the best way to do that is limit his playing time primarily to passing downs so he's fresh when the stakes are the greatest — in the fourth quarter of games and late in the season.
Peppers said this week that the Packers never discussed using him in such a specialized role when they signed him in March or any time since. When asked what he'd think of playing a Haley-like role, he initially expressed indifference.
But when pressed, he clearly was intrigued by the possibility, even if he isn't inclined to ask the coaching staff for such a specialized role.
"Put it out there," he said with a broad smile.
Peppers always has been a high-volume player, even in his final two years with the Chicago Bears. Last season, he played 81.7 percent of the Bears' defensive snaps (an average of 53 snaps per game), and in 2012, he played 74.7 percent (an average of 49 per game). Both years were most among the team's defensive linemen even though he was ages 32 and 33.
In his two games with the Packers, Peppers has played 75.2 percent of the defensive snaps (106 of 141). In the opener against Seattle, he played way too much, 84 percent (59 of 70). Last week against the New York Jets, the coaching staff cut that to 66 percent (47 of 71).
It's worth noting that in ProFootballFocus.com's grades, Peppers performed better in the game he played less. Against the Seahawks he had one quarterback hit and no hurries, though to be fair he also had a half-sack nullified because of an illegal-contact penalty on Brad Jones. Against the Jets last week, Peppers had one hit and three hurries.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said he's still trying to figure out Peppers' optimal snap count, though he suggested the Jets' game will be more the template.
"Every week (Peppers' playing time) might vary based off what we're seeing," Capers said. "But with the people we have (at outside linebacker/defensive end), our substitution patterns — the goal is to have a guy like Julius or a guy like Clay (Matthews), in the fourth quarter, which is the most critical time of the game, fresh and healthy and ready to go."
Still, the argument here is that the Packers should strongly consider playing Peppers even less than the 66 percent (47 snaps) he played against the Jets. Cut it to the 50 to 55 percent range, and turn him loose on the quarterback.
The Packers are in good position to limit Peppers' workload because Neal and Perry can absorb the extra snaps, either at outside linebacker in the 3-4 and early-down nickel, and at the defensive ends in the new 4-3 look, when Matthews moves to a conventional outside linebacker spot.
Last year, a few teams deployed key rushers that way with good results. That, in fact, was the Seattle Seahawks' approach with their entire defensive line.
On their way to winning the Super Bowl, the Seahawks had no defensive linemen play more than 57.5 percent of their snaps. Michael Bennett led the team with 8½ sacks in 600 snaps (57.5 percent of the defensive total). Cliff Avril had eight sacks in 551 snaps (52.8 percent of the total).
In fact, Avril was a better rusher with Seattle last season than with more playing time with the Detroit Lions the year before. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Avril had 53 quarterback hits and hurries, plus his eight sacks for the Seahawks last season. He averaged 37 snaps in the 15 games he played.
The year before with the Lions, Avril played more (an average of 43 snaps in each of his 16 games; 66.3 percent of the team's defensive total) and had 9½ sacks, or 1½ more than last year. But his 25 hits and hurries combined were fewer than half his '13 total.
Two other rushers had strong seasons in 2013 while in the 50 to 55 percent range of playing time: Baltimore's Elvis Dumervil and Buffalo's Jerry Hughes.
Dumervil played 51.7 percent of the Ravens' defensive snaps (557 total, an average of 37 in the 15 games he played) and finished with 9½ sacks and 51 hits and hurries combined. Hughes played 52.8 percent of the Bills' defensive snaps (604 total, an average of 38 in his 16 games) and finished with 10 sacks, plus 48 hits and hurries combined. They were two of ProFootballFocus.com's three highest-graded outside rushers last season.
That doesn't mean they were the NFL's best outside rushers. Clearly they're not. But that's exactly the kind of season the Packers are looking for from Peppers. Sometimes less is more.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.