Tom Silverstein and Ryan Wood discuss what veteran linebacker Julius Peppers and newly acquired running back Christine Michael had to say Thursday.
GREEN BAY – He earned a doctorate in pass rushing long ago. Julius Peppers, the Green Bay Packers' gray-bearded vet, knows this “game within a game” inside and out.
Peppers has hit the quarterback from all angles. He has put his hand in the dirt. He has lurked in a two-point stance. He has beaten offensive tackles, guards, even centers for 139.5 career sacks, sixth all time.
There is one thing all those years and games and sacks taught him: Pass rushing, Peppers said, can’t be isolated to one play.
“It’s not like you can line up on this guy for one snap and just beat him,” Peppers said. “It doesn’t work like that.”
Peppers thought he’d seen everything as a pass rusher. Then this season started.
He is a marginal player now. His role has been limited almost exclusively to passing situations. In the past, Peppers could use first-quarter snaps to set up fourth-quarter countermoves. He played this game within a game flawlessly.
For the first time, Peppers has had to learn how to do more with less. He admits it has been a struggle.
Through nine games, Peppers’ production dipped to 3.5 sacks. It’s easy, if not also accurate, to look at his age, his gray beard, his declining stat line and wonder whether he has anything left. At 36, Peppers is well past the point most of the game’s best pass rushers cease being effective.
Peppers won’t hear that. He views his lack of production as a mere byproduct of fewer opportunities.
“I don’t know what the perception is,” Peppers said. “I’m the same player that I’ve been. The opportunities are going to determine and dictate the performance and production, and that’s for everybody. Not only me.”
Peppers has played 275 snaps this fall, just 49 percent. His snap count dipped to 19 last week in Tennessee, one more than his season low.
With Clay Matthews unavailable for the third straight game, Peppers’ lack of snaps was startling. He was brought here to serve as a counterbalance, preventing the Packers from relying too much on one edge rusher. Peppers played more than 70 percent of the Packers' defensive snaps with Matthews inactive each of the previous two games, the only time he surpassed 50 percent this season.
Then he played 32 percent against the Titans.
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Peppers said the Packers’ early three-touchdown deficit resulted in his lack of snaps. Up 21-0, the Titans didn’t need to throw the football after the first quarter. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota’s 26 passes were his third-fewest this season, and only nine came in the second half.
Peppers doesn’t provide much as a run defender. While he was hardly the only one at fault, Peppers’ hard charge upfield took him out of the hole when running back Demarco Murray broke off a 75-yard touchdown run on the Titans' opening play.
Regardless, Peppers couldn’t hide his desire for an increased role.
“I think everybody would like to play a little more,” Peppers said, looking around the locker room. “I think if you ask Brett Hundley would he like to play, he would say, ‘Yeah.’ So to answer the question, to give you a yes or no answer, I would say yeah. Yeah, I would like to play a little more, but I understand my role on this team.
“I want to try to execute my role to help the team in the best way possible.”
His role is to provide splash plays. The Packers couldn’t much care what Peppers does with 95 percent of his snaps. Just reach the quarterback a couple of times each week.
To do that, the Packers decided this offseason to ration Peppers’ playing time. They didn’t want him fading into November, December and — they hoped — January’s playoff push. It was a plan Peppers cosigned at the time, though he predicted difficulty in learning how to produce in a niche role.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers knows it’s easier for pass rushers to increase their production with more snaps. They’re like volume shooters. The more shots, the more points they score.
But Capers isn’t deviating from the blueprint mapped out before this season.
“We’ve had a plan with Julius all along,” Capers said. “It really hasn’t changed a whole lot, and we’ve got a number of people at that position that we feel good about — we feel good about their abilities. So we’re just trying to stay the course with the plan that we’ve had for Julius.
“There’s probably not a player on defense that wouldn’t like to play every snap. But you look at our other guys at that position, we’ve tried to control the snaps and keep guys fresh, and we think that they can do the most good if they are fresh out there playing a certain number of snaps rather than overplaying guys, especially a guy with Julius’ experience.”
Rushing the passer every down, Capers added, is among the toughest tasks for a defensive player. The constant chase is exhausting for anyone, much less a player 15 seasons into his NFL career.
Peppers said Capers’ plan has worked, at least partially. Yes, he does feel fresher at this point in the season than previous Novembers.
Not that it matters so long as the production is missing.
“We still are trying to figure it out, in my opinion,” Peppers said, “how much to play, how much not to play, when to play and those type of things. Hopefully soon here we’ll get it mapped out, and we’ll have it set to how we’re going to move forward.”
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