The Green Bay Packers came into this season with a plan for how they wanted to handle Julius Peppers.
The 35-year-old pass rusher, who recently made the switch to 3-4 outside linebacker, was coming off a seven-sack campaign with the Packers in 2014, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers at times felt he leaned too heavily on Peppers. This year, he and coach Mike McCarthy set out to balance Peppers' workload.
The patient approach is starting to pay dividends. Peppers had a season-high 2½ sacks in Sunday’s 30-20 win over Oakland and leads the Packers’ defense with 9½ this season.
"When you get to this point, it’s almost like Year 3," Peppers said. "I’m definitely a lot more comfortable in the defense, the locker room, everywhere."
The Packers aimed to keep Peppers fresh and healthy for the stretch run in 2015. While the eight-time Pro Bowler can’t say for certain how many snaps he has played this season, he didn’t seem surprised when told he’s on pace to play roughly 100 fewer snaps than a year ago.
Is it a byproduct of increased rest? Possibly, but Peppers doesn’t feel it has triggered a drastic change. If anything, it's how the Packers have handled the veteran in practice that has made the biggest impact on him.
“I don’t think it makes that much difference, you know,” said Peppers, who’s playing about five fewer snaps per game this season. “When you get into the game, you’re trying to win games. So you want your best players out there, so whether I play 40 snaps a game or 36, I don’t think it matters that much. In practice, they have cut back the reps, trying to take care of us. So that makes a difference, but I don’t necessarily know if it makes a difference in a game."
His coaches and teammates see a difference in Peppers in the second year of the three-year, $26 million deal he agreed to when the Packers signed him in March 2014. His credentials as a pass rusher aren’t questioned — he’s 10th in NFL history with 135 sacks — but it goes further than numbers.
Players listen when Peppers speaks and his on-field actions change games. Twice this season, Peppers has gotten the ball back at critical moments. His run defense occasionally can be a bit of an adventure, but the athleticism remains at an elite level even weeks shy of his 36th birthday.
Two weeks ago against Dallas, Peppers ran down Cowboys running back Darren McFadden after a 50-yard gain to prevent a touchdown. What impresses Capers and McCarthy the most is Peppers is still learning the finer points of his new position from linebackers coach Winston Moss.
“I think Julius is so much more comfortable this year (than) last year,” McCarthy said earlier this week. “I think I’ve done a better job just being smart with him and Winston’s done a great job with the coordination of the reps, I really like the rotation that we have with our front people and he’s playing good football.
“He brings a lot to our program, a lot to our football team and he’s having another great year.”
Peppers is still the embodiment of durability. He has missed only one practice this season and it was only because McCarthy wanted to give him a rest day between Thursday games last month.
With Clay Matthews entrenched at inside linebacker, Peppers has been rushing opposite another converted defensive lineman, Mike Neal, for most of the season. Neal leads Packers outside rushers with 668 snaps (70.7 percent), followed by Peppers’ 641 (67.8 percent) and Nick Perry’s 296 (31.3 percent).
Capers felt Peppers’ productivity against Oakland — four tackles, 2½ sacks and a forced fumble — had to do with how the Packers have handled him. A year ago, Peppers endured a five-game sack drought during the middle of the season before rebounding late.
The Packers are hoping a well-rested Peppers can duplicate what he did at the end of last season when he had 4½ sacks in the final month of the season and two forced fumbles in the playoffs. His 34 pressures are second on the team only to defensive lineman Mike Daniels, according to Pro Football Focus.
“You convert a defensive end to outside linebacker, it’s not really too hard,” said Neal, who has 33 tackles and three sacks. “I think you have to drop a little bit more. In those instances, I think he’s done a good job. He’s an athlete. I mean he’s athletic. You think you get a big man in space like that, he couldn’t move, but he does an excellent job of that. Everything else comes natural to him.”
What Peppers doesn't have is the crown jewel — a Super Bowl title. He rarely says anything about the unchecked box on his resume. However, he understands the end of his career is closer than the beginning, and so do his teammates.
“You know he’s going to be a future Hall of Famer, so you just want to cherish the time you have playing with him,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “I think it all makes us play a lot harder just because we know his time is ticking. He doesn’t have much time left and we’re all trying to go out there and win and do good things for him.”
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