TAMPA, Fla. – All around him, questions and doubts swirled over the past month. The goose eggs were impossible to ignore. On social media, across talk radio, Julius Peppers' sack drought generated frequent discussion.
Before Sunday, it had been five straight games since Peppers smacked a quarterback to the ground. The streak began in mid-November, the week of Thanksgiving. Early on this mid-December Sunday in Tampa, four days before Christmas, it was still going strong.
Slowly, concern grew. Anxiety kept building outside Green Bay's locker room. Did Peppers have enough energy to get through a 16-game season? Was the 34-year-old linebacker hitting a wall?
The eight-time Pro Bowler left no doubt in Green Bay's 20-3 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before a split crowd of 64,247 at Raymond James Stadium. Peppers and fellow linebacker Clay Matthews combined for 4.5 of the Packers' seven sacks, constantly pounding Bucs quarterback Josh McCown.
Peppers' two sacks gave him his first multi-sack game of the season. If you expected him to celebrate his breakout game in the locker room – or even crack a smile – you left disappointed. The veteran has been here. He's done this before.
"I don't really have a feeling to express," Peppers said. "It's just a play in the game."
They were several plays in the game, actually. And they were a big reason – probably the biggest – Green Bay's defense has gone two straight games without allowing a touchdown for the first time since 2009.
Fifteen weeks into the season, Peppers and Matthews finally showed how dynamic they can be as a pass-rushing duo. Peppers may have been unimpressed with it all. He was in the minority.
At his locker, defensive end Datone Jones was asked about the sack show Peppers and Matthews displayed. Jones, hoarse and nursing a fever, just shook his head.
"They're very scary, man," he said.
Ask McCown. The Bucs quarterback was most directly affected by the onslaught.
A season ago, McCown feasted on the Packers' secondary. He was with the Chicago Bears – playing with two good receivers, just like Tampa – when he handed Green Bay a loss at Lambeau Field. On that day, McCown had two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 90.7 passer rating.
Sunday was much different.
Peppers and Matthews had McCown under duress so often, the quarterback admitted his rhythm was off. McCown finished 12-of-26 for 147 yards, one interception and a 48.1 passer rating. It's been a dismal season in Tampa, but McCown's rating Sunday was his lowest since September.
Tampa Bay's offense shadowed its quarterback's struggles. The Bucs finished 4-of-14 on third down. They had just 109 yards. Their initial first down of the game came with less than four minutes left the first half.
Before that, the Bucs started with five straight three-and-outs.
"When you have breakdowns like that," McCown said, "you're left grabbing at things and trying to figure out what's going on, and at quarterback it changes your clock."
Cornerback Tramon Williams couldn't watch the sack show. His focus was on the receiver he was tasked with covering, which meant Williams spent more time looking at Bucs rookie Mike Williams and veteran Vincent Jackson.
But Williams knew the opposing quarterback was uncomfortable.
McCown's passes sailed over receivers' heads. They fell wildly out of bounds. These were the throws of a quarterback desperately trying to get rid of the football, accurately or not.
Packers players Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb and Morgan Burnett talk about the team's victory Sunday in Tampa. (Dec. 21, 2014) Jim Matthews/Press-Gazette Media
"You can feel it, man," Williams said of Peppers and Matthews' pass rush. "We don't get a chance to see it, but I'll tell you one thing, today we definitely felt it. We definitely felt it today. They say that we had (seven) sacks, but I think that we had about 15.
"Truthfully, I thought we had about 15, because it seemed like every play they were back there."
Matthews also faced difficult questions earlier this season. The four-time Pro Bowler started slow, his numbers startling low. Matthews had just one sack in the first six weeks, 2.5 at Green Bay's bye week midway through the season.
Then Matthews moved to inside linebacker when the Packers hosted the Bears in their first game of November. Since then, he's heated up.
Matthews now has 10 sacks this fall, the fourth double-digit sacks season of his career. More than half (5.5) have come in the past three weeks. On Sunday, Matthews' 2.5 sacks were the most he had since sacking Bears quarterback Jay Cutler 3.5 times in the second game of the 2012 season.
"It wasn't just me," Matthews said. "You saw Peppers with two, Mike Neal got after it, guys up and down the board. It was really great to see. Especially as a front seven, that's what you love to see."
Yes, the Packers' pass rush was more than Peppers and Matthews. Neal had a sack. Daniels, Jones and safety Morgan Burnett chipped in with a half sack apiece.
But Peppers was brought to Green Bay this offseason for a reason. It's easy to forget now, with everything else the defensive captain has given the Packers, but his free agent signing was supposed to make Matthews a more effective pass rusher. Together, the duo was expected to give opposing quarterbacks nightmares.
On Sunday, Peppers and Matthews showed they were plenty capable.
"When you've got two of the greatest that's ever done it, it's only a matter of time before you see that kind of magic with those kind of guys," Daniels said. "It's an incredible honor and a blessing to be able to play with him."