Peppers the big move in chase to catch Seahawks, 49ers
The Green Bay Packers signed Julius Peppers to get them back to the Super Bowl.
They've gone three seasons since winning Super Bowl XLV, and a primary reason they haven't gone back is the absence of a difference-maker on defense to go with Clay Matthews.
Charles Woodson got too old for the role, Nick Collins' career ended because of a neck injury and none of general manager Ted Thompson's recent draft picks did anything to suggest that kind of player is in the pipeline.
So Thompson stepped out of character and took a chance in the free-agent market. Peppers' price was palatable ($8.5 million in first-year pay) because of his age, 34, which also means there's doubt about whether he can still play at the difference-maker level.
The Packers think he can, and on Saturday, the first day of training camp, Peppers and Matthews lined up together for the first time. Matthews, who didn't practice all offseason while recovering from a broken thumb, played mostly at left outside linebacker and Peppers on the right side, though both lined up at varying spots across the front seven throughout the morning workout.
"There's a reason we brought him in here," Matthews said after practice. "It's (to) help create pressure on the quarterback along with myself and the guys in the middle. 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."
Matthews was referring to the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, one of two teams the Packers probably will have to go through in the NFC. The other is the San Francisco 49ers, who went to the NFC championship game in the 2012 season and have knocked the Packers out of the playoffs for the last two years.
According to Bovada.lv, Seattle has the NFC's best odds (7-to-1) for winning the Super Bowl, and the 49ers have the second-best (9-to-1). The Packers are next (10-to-1).
The challenge in catching the two is both have ascending young quarterbacks, a good core of young talent and front offices that are active in the trade and free-agent markets. But both teams also are beginning to experience the problems that come with success.
Though Seattle didn't have one or two dominant pass rushers, it could field four to six good rushers (linebackers included) on any given down, which kept opposing passers under siege by sheer volume and attrition. However, this offseason, the Seahawks' depth eroded with the loss of two of those rushers (Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald) in free agency.
Free agency also cost the Seahawks their leading receiver, Golden Tate. And this summer they have a major contractual problem because their most important player on offense, halfback Marshawn Lynch, is holding out of training camp.
The Seahawks, though, have untapped talent in their passing game in receiver Percy Harvin, whose hip injury limited him to only one game in the regular season last year. They also drafted a receiver in the second round, Paul Richardson of Colorado.
The 49ers have had even more contractual issues that could create chemistry problems. In the offseason they reportedly had talks about trading coach Jim Harbaugh to the Cleveland Browns — Harbaugh is looking for a top-tier contract extension — and though he has two years left on his deal, this could be his last season with the 49ers.
Also, guard Alex Boone is holding out from training camp and tight end Vernon Davis has said publicly he wants a new deal, though he's in camp.
Then there's the personnel losses. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, the 49ers' best pass rusher, is facing a suspension in the coming weeks for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. And maybe the team's best defensive player, linebacker NaVorro Bowman, probably will miss much of the season while recovering from a blown-out knee sustained in the NFC championship game in January.
But for all those issues, the Seahawks and 49ers should field upper-echelon defenses plus growing young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, respectively.
So to catch the NFC's best, Thompson deviated from his usual draft-and-develop strategy to add a potential playmaker in free agency.
"We'll obviously find out Week 1 where we stand and (the Seahawks) stand," receiver Jordy Nelson said of the season-opening matchup in Seattle.
The Packers have finished in the bottom quarter in the NFL in defense (yards allowed) in two of the past three years and are looking for Peppers to improve their pass rush, which is the best way to improve a defense overall. If nothing else, the signing seems to have invigorated some of the Packers' veterans, who relish Peppers' intimidating presence as a 6-foot-7, 287-pound outside linebacker.
"No doubt about it," cornerback Tramon Williams said of Peppers making a difference. "Anytime you've got a guy like that, we don't have many guys who are built like him, who can move like him at that size, who can make the transition at that size from D-(lineman) to outside linebacker. It's actually amazing to see him out there."
Said Matthews: "I'm excited about it. Obviously I take pride in my individual game and I never rely on anyone else, but it's only going to help."
If Peppers still is a difference-maker at 34, it could show up in any of several ways. He could put up big sacks numbers — his career high is 14½ in 2008, and he's averaged 9.9 sacks in his 12 NFL seasons. Or, the sacks numbers for Matthews and inside rushers Mike Daniels (6½ last year), Datone Jones (3½) and Mike Neal (5) will go up.
"In terms of stats, they'll just flat-out improve," Daniels said. "It's logic. Add this, everything improves. When things improve, numbers improve."
Williams said that this offseason and the start of training camp feels different than the last three years and likened it to 2009, which was defensive coordinator Dom Capers' first season. The switch to Capers' 3-4 zone blitz scheme excited the players in '09 because of its variety of looks and blitzes.
Williams thinks the addition of Peppers and the "elephant" position, which will occasional deploy players such as Peppers, Neal and Nick Perry in multiple positions across the defensive line, is creating that same feeling.
"People kind of caught up to us a little bit (since the Super Bowl), and we needed to make adjustments," Williams said. "I think we have."
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