Peppers completes package with Packers

Ryan Wood
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Green Bay Packers linebacker Julius Peppers runs for a touchdown after intercepting a pass from Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez during their game at Lambeau Field in November 2014.

Julius Peppers backpedalled off the snap. Three steps, dropping into coverage, he moved as subtly as a 6-foot-7, 285-pound linebacker can.

Which was not very subtle at all.

There he stood, a tower planted in the middle of the field. The defensive end-turned-outside linebacker was impossible to hide in the Green Bay Packers' secondary. Everyone saw him, it seemed, except Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez.

But Peppers was watching Sanchez.

"I was able to get a read on his eyes," Peppers said.

Sanchez's pass was intended for tight end Brent Celek. It never got that far. Peppers barely had to move, letting the football meet him before harkening back to his glory days as a running back at Southern Nash High in Wilson, N.C.

In the last 20 yards of his second interception returned for a touchdown this season, Peppers even threw a stiff arm.

"I was too close (to the end zone) to be denied," he said, smiling.

Green Bay Packers linebacker Julius Peppers (56) celebrates his interception returned for a touchdown with teammates.

In the locker room after Sunday's blowout win against the Eagles, the disbelief hadn't faded from fellow outside linebacker Mike Neal's face. By two inches, Peppers is the tallest player on the Packers roster.

In coverage, he's proven to be stealthy.

"I tell him all the time, 'They just throw you gifts,'" Neal said. "You could be standing there, and they throw the ball right to you. I'm like, how do you not miss this dude? He's 6-7.

"But he's a blessed dude. Plays fall into his hands, and he takes advantage of them."

A few lockers to the left, Peppers couldn't disagree.

These past 10 games with the Packers, Peppers said he's played the game exactly how he always wanted. One of the most versatile defensive lineman in NFL history – he's the only player ever with at least 100 sacks and 10 interceptions – said he's finally found a system that uses his complete skillset.

Peppers is more than a pass rusher and run defender in Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 system. This season, he's gotten a chance to drop into coverage, changing the game in a new way.

"These are the kind of plays that I always envisioned myself making," Peppers said. "These are the kind of plays that I always told myself that, if I was able to play in a defense like this, I could make those kind of plays. I'm finally doing it, and I'm having a lot of fun with it."

The experiment has been a smashing success, surpassing even the expectations Green Bay's coaching staff had entering the season.

Peppers has already dropped back 25 times in 10 games, more than he ever did in his four seasons with the Chicago Bears. He's played pass coverage on 4.7 percent of his 522 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

Since Pro Football Focus began tracking plays in 2007, Peppers only dropped back on 3 percent of his snaps once (3.07 percent in 2007). It's the highest ratio since 2007, when Pro Football Focus first began counting snaps.

Peppers turned the extra opportunities into history. Already, he's the first Packers linebacker to return two interceptions for touchdowns in the same season. He's also the only player in the NFL with at least one sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery, interception and two touchdowns.

"He's a special guy," Capers said. "He was a rare guy when he was coming out. He's obviously had a very productive career. I think the newness coming in and doing something here that he hasn't done, has been exciting to be him.

"I certainly couldn't be more pleased with the way he's responded. He's had a big impact."

This success was never a sure thing.

When the Packers listed Peppers as an outside linebacker, there were skeptics. On paper, the logic didn't seem to match up. How could a likely future Hall of Famer move to a new, more athletic position at the age of 34? Seemed like a fair question.

There's a reason the Packers showed a lot of 4-3 defense in the season's first month. With Peppers' hand on the ground in a three-point stance, the idea was to keep their prized free agent comfortable doing what he's always done through the first 12 seasons of his career. Capers admitted he wasn't quite sure how Peppers would respond.

Peppers said he never doubted whether the move would work.

"I didn't really need to prove it to myself," Peppers said. "I knew I could do it. It was just a question of, would I have the opportunity to do it? Just because I'm playing outside linebacker, it doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to get the chance to get interceptions and things like that.

"The opportunity to drop back and get into an area where balls are thrown was really the question. Was I going to get the opportunity to prove it? I knew I could do it."

Perhaps most impressive, the new role hasn't diminished Peppers' ability to cause havoc as a pass rusher. He has a team-high five sacks, including one strip-sack apiece against the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. He's also on pace to finish with one more sack than he had last season with the Bears.

Capers said Peppers has been everything he'd hoped. In meetings, he scribbles notes. With younger teammates, he offers a veteran's wisdom. He's a role model in the locker room, a difference-maker on the field.

"Julius is a Hall of Fame player who really wants to win a championship," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Tuesday on his weekly ESPN Milwaukee radio show. "That's his main goal. We're so glad to have him. He's been a great impact player for us on the field, but off the field I think he's really started to give more of himself and open up to these guys."

Peppers smiled while standing at his locker Sunday night. In Green Bay, he said he's become comfortable on and off the field. He called the Packers' recent home blowouts "special," something he's never seen before.

There's no doubting the success he's had in a new role has been fulfilling. Capers said he thinks Peppers has even more room to grow into the defense. For Peppers, that's good to hear.

"It was just about going out and doing it, backing up your thoughts and your words," he said. "It's a good feeling to go out there and do what you know you can do." and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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