Packers need to get most out of aging Peppers

Pete Dougherty
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Julius Peppers, 34, ranks No. 17 on the NFL all-time sacks list with 118.5. The Packers hope he’s the pass-rushing complement to Clay Matthews they’ve been seeking.

Since the NFL began keeping the statistics in 1982, 14 pass rushers have reached double-digit sacks in a season at age 34 or older.

They've done it 26 times combined, and the list contains some of the league's all-time greats: Reggie White (three times), Kevin Greene (four times), Bruce Smith (three), Chris Doleman (three), Ed "Too Tall" Jones (twice) and Rickey Jackson (twice).

Most recently, John Abraham did it for the second time in his career last year, when he had 11½ sacks for Arizona as a 35-year-old.

That's exactly the kind of game-changing play the Green Bay Packers are looking for from 34-year-old Julius Peppers this season.

The Packers are trying to get over the hump in the NFC, where San Francisco and Seattle are at the top of the heap, and project Peppers as the bona fide outside pass-rushing complement for Clay Matthews that can significantly improve a defense that last season finished No. 25 in yards allowed and tied for No. 24 in points allowed.

They're paying Peppers $8.5 million this season as part of a three-year contract because they think he still has the talent to draw occasional double teams so Matthews is single blocked, or to make teams pay for double-teaming Matthews.

"I'm glad (Peppers) is here, I know that," said Dom Capers, the Packers' defensive coordinator, this offseason. "He's a rare guy in terms of his ability."

The question is, does Peppers, who ranks No. 17 on the NFL all-time sacks list with 118½, still have a difference-maker-type season in him? Or was his seven-sack 2013 a sign that he will no longer be that kind of player?

Peppers definitely isn't the typical 34-year-old. He stood out to even casual observers of the Packers' offseason practices because of his freakish size — at 6-foot-7 he's the tallest player on the roster, and at 287 pounds he's about 20 pounds heavier than a typical outside linebacker in the team's 3-4 defensive scheme.

But even with the size and athletic ability that made him the No. 2 pick overall in the 2002 draft, he's old for a pass rusher and coming off a season in which he played all 16 games but had 4½ fewer sacks than in 2012.

So Capers and coach Mike McCarthy have to decide how to get the most out of him. Part of the equation will be determining where to play Peppers — with the addition of the "elephant" position, which is a hybrid defensive lineman and outside linebacker, they're going to use him in multiple spots. Though his primary position will be as a standing outside rusher, he could line up outside but with his hand on the ground, or as an inside rusher as well.

But just as important is how much they play him.

Last year, Peppers played 865 defensive snaps (81.7 percent of the Chicago Bears' defensive total), up from 797 snaps the previous season (74.7 percent).

The Packers no doubt have been considering this offseason whether less will mean more from Peppers as a pass rusher, and if so, how much less? They'll be looking for him to be at his best late in games and especially in December and January, and for a player of his age, that likely means limiting his playing time. Whether that's in the range of 50 percent of the defensive snaps, 60 percent or 70 percent remains to be seen.

"We'll have to find the happy medium there," Capers said. "He does have the ability to make difference-maker-type plays, and that's a big part of the game nowadays. We'll have to find what we think is the right number of plays. But he can certainly do all the things we're asking him to do. We'll just have to get a feel for that as we make our way closer to the opener."

Nick Perry is one of the “tweeners” that spurred the Packers to create the “Elephant” position.

The Packers have players in Mike Neal and Nick Perry who can give Peppers the rest, that is if the two don't have the injury issues that historically have limited them. Neal, a fifth-year pro, and Perry, in his third season, also are 'tweeners as outside linebackers and defensive ends. The Packers added the elephant position for them as well, so either can line up almost anywhere across the line on a given snap.

It's conceivable that on some obvious passing downs, Peppers and Neal or Perry or both could join Matthews on the field.

"We've got all the (defensive) packages," Capers said. "It's just going to be which ones work and which ones we think will be best to best utilize our personnel. I think you make a mistake if you just try to take your guys and fit them into a defense. You have to take your defense and fit it around the guys. That's what we're kind of going through right now."

The wild card in the pass rush could be rookie Carl Bradford. At 6-0¾, he doesn't have anywhere near the length the Packers prefer at outside linebacker, but they drafted him in the fourth round because they liked his power and intangibles as an outside rusher. Though Bradford might be able to play inside linebacker as well, the Packers appear prepared to take a long look at him outside first.

"He's very strong," Capers said. "He's got good quick twitch, good quickness. He seems to have been very tuned in. I think the strength and quickness is going to be the best part of his game from what I see. He's got good power, you can see it, he's very well-built in his thighs and rear end. He's got a lot of power there."

Mike Neal (96) and Carl Bradford (91) bring versatility to the mix at outside linebacker.

The Packers surprisingly didn't make any offseason moves of significance at inside linebacker even though it was one of their soft spots last season. So the presumptive starters again are A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.

Hawk at age 30 has been durable — the eight-year starter has missed only two games — and quarterbacks the defense. But he's been involved in only three turnover plays the last three seasons combined.

Jones, a sixth-year pro, missed four games last season because of hamstring and ankle injuries. Fourth-year pro Jamari Lattimore and 2013 seventh-round pick Sam Barrington could push for playing time.

Lattimore, who moved from outside linebacker to inside last season, started when Jones was injured.

"I think Jamari having another year under his belt, you'll see improvement out of Jamari," Capers said. "And we know what he can do, he's an athletic guy."

Barrington was a special teams player the first half of his rookie season, then spent the second half of the year on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury.

"(Barrington) is a guy that can run," said Winston Moss, the Packers' linebackers coach. "He's a good guy, he's working very hard to try to make an impact, so he's very diligent in his preparation. What he has to do is do it on the field. His honeymoon is over. It's time for him to see if he can play."

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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