GREEN BAY - Linebackers Nick Perry and Julius Peppers are connected in a way neither would prefer to admit, but it’s hard to dismiss the logical association.
It goes like this: The better Perry plays, the less Peppers has to play and the better off the Green Bay Packers will be this season.
Try as they might to avoid placing so much pressure on one guy, that proportionality was established in March when the Packers rewarded Perry with a $5 million contract largely on the basis of playing two of the best games of his career in the playoffs. The Packers chose to re-sign Perry over veteran Mike Neal fully believing he could give them the best of two worlds.
When Peppers ceded his starting position to Perry and took snaps with the No. 2 defense on the first day of training camp, it was evident the Packers were serious about lessening the 36-year-old Peppers’ load this season and confident Perry could fill the vital position opposite Clay Matthews.
“First of all, I wasn’t surprised,” Peppers said of not starting. “We’ve been doing that since the spring. But there comes a time when you can’t play as much, you can’t play as many plays, you can’t exert yourself as much, particularly at this time of the year.
“I’m perfectly fine with that.”
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The past two offseasons Peppers has had discussions with defensive coordinator Dom Capers about reducing the 14-year veteran’s regular-season snaps to keep him from wearing down. Each time, there was agreement that Peppers would play less so that he could be fresh when the playoffs rolled around.
Then the regular season would start and Capers couldn’t get himself to rest Peppers because he felt he was too valuable to the defense.
After playing 851 snaps in 16 games during his final season with the Chicago Bears in 2013, Peppers played 900 snaps in 18 games his first season in Green Bay. Last year, the number dipped to 790 in 18 games, but he still played only slightly fewer snaps than Neal (829), who ranked first among outside linebackers.
“You talk about these things, but do you actually end up getting it done?” Peppers said of offseason plans to reduce his snaps. “We weren’t getting it done and so we had to look at it and say how are we going to get it done?
“I think we’re headed in the right direction with Nick playing more and with Datone (Jones) being added to the group. It kind of balances things out.”
It also puts a great deal of importance on Perry staying healthy and being productive. He has missed 18 of 64 regular-season games and two of seven playoff games due to shoulder, knee, foot and wrist injuries.
He has played 1,447 career snaps and has 18½ sacks and six forced fumbles in his 71 games.
His sack production in the playoffs (six in seven games) has been high and when he came up with 3½ in the two games in January, including 2½ against Washington Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams, the Packers were convinced they should bring him back on a one-year deal.
“I think Nick will play a bigger role in our defense clearly just from an opportunity standpoint,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “His opportunities will increase. I think that’s something that’s been evident since Day 1 in the offseason program.
“Going back to the postseason conversations that we had, this is the first offseason Nick has gone through. He’s been coming off an injury each and every year and he looks like a whole different player. I look for Nick to be a prominent player in our defense this year.”
When he came out of USC in 2012, Perry weighed 270 pounds, an enormous amount for a 6-3 outside linebacker. But he had played end in a 4-3 defense and while transitioning to linebacker he dropped weight and now weighs 260.
His best asset is his brute strength at the point of attack, which is one reason why Capers wants him in the base defense. With Matthews on the other side, the Packers could have two exceptional edge defenders who can funnel runners into the middle of the defense.
Capers also wants Perry to put his hand down in the ground and pass rush from an end or tackle position the way Peppers has since joining the team. It would allow him to stack Matthews or Peppers on the same side as Perry to cause an overload.
“I think we all can do that,” Perry said of rushing as an end. “I played in a 4-3, so I can put my hand in the dirt. Those are scheme questions; I can’t really get into that. I know whatever Dom puts in place for us to do we’re going to set out to do just that.”
Two areas where Perry must continue to improve is pass-rush move variety and pass coverage. The latter is not something that comes intuitively for most converted defensive ends and so there is a lot of work to do.
Perry can run fast, but there’s a big difference in straight-line speed and being able to backpedal and break in either direction to keep up with a tight end or running back.
“I think the game has changed in a way that you have to be fast, especially the position we play,” Perry said. “We have to be able to play tight ends, sometimes receivers and running backs in coverage. We also have to have some way to be able to pull down runners when you take on a big, 320 (-pound) tackle.
“There’s a balance. I think everybody finds that balance and works on their strengths and weaknesses to make sure they’re all around balanced to play.”
Perry’s health will remain an issue until he shows he can get through a 16-game schedule unscathed and so Peppers has to be ready to resume his old role. Capers would love it if Jones made a perfectly smooth transition to outside linebacker or rookie Kyler Fackrell suddenly put on 20 pounds, but those are a long shot.
If Peppers is going to preserve his strength, Perry is going to have to come through. He has to find a way to build off the strong showing at the end of last year.
“How do you do it?” he said, repeating the question. “Work hard, knowing your defense and knowing the schemes other teams are doing. You have to be a smart player as well as a hard worker. I’ve done a lot of that stuff over the offseason, and I’ll continue to improve and do better on what I know how to do.”