Our Aaron Nagler was back on Facebook Live Dec. 14 taking fan questions and talking all things Packers. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY - Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff reconvened earlier this week to begin preparations for the Carolina Panthers, their next opponent in a sprint toward the postseason. They flipped on the tape of Sunday’s game between the Panthers and Minnesota Vikings — a game in which the Panthers never trailed — and within a minute they saw a familiar face knifing into the backfield to bury tailback Latavius Murray for a 4-yard loss.
The behemoth who shot the gap between the right tackle and tight end was none other than Julius Peppers, formerly of the Green Bay Packers. He is a month shy of his 38th birthday and still gives offensive linemen fits.
“I think he’s playing excellent,” McCarthy said. “He’s playing as good as I can recall the last four or five years. … Julius is playing at an extremely high level.”
Peppers returned to the Panthers as an unrestricted free agent in March after three reasonably productive seasons in Green Bay, though the Packers failed to reach the Super Bowl. He signed a one-year $3.5 million contract to join the team that drafted him No. 2 overall in 2002 and, presumably, end his storied career in his home state of North Carolina.
But what might have been a nostalgic swan song has proven quite fruitful for the Panthers, who at 9-4 enter Sunday’s game as the fourth seed in the NFC playoff picture. In reverting to his preferred position as a 4-3 defensive end, Peppers reinforced a front seven that is among the best in football. He has 9 ½ sacks through 13 games despite playing the fewest snaps in his 16-year career.
“What I was hoping for was consistency, and he’s been that,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in a conference call. “But he’s also been dynamic. He works so hard. I mean, it’s really one of those things when you watch the type of pro he is, you see why he’s still effective.”
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Peppers joined the Packers at age 34 and tallied sack totals of 7, 10 ½ and 7 ½ in his three seasons as a 3-4 outside linebacker and an interior rusher on passing downs. But in an effort to preserve energy for playoff runs, defensive coordinator Dom Capers pared back Peppers’ snap counts each year. He played 73.9 percent of snaps in 2014, when the Packers reached the NFC Championship game, followed by 66.6 percent in 2015 and 56.9 percent in 2016, when the Packers reached the NFC title game for a second time.
The Panthers have continued the trend under first-year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, whose thick rotation of linemen has kept Peppers below 50 percent playing time.
“He’s in sync with his teammates, and they’re doing a heck of a job as a defensive front,” McCarthy said. “You look at the sack numbers, but if you see the discipline in the rush lanes as far as not only off the edge but the push inside, the defensive lineman that gets the one-on-one, they’re getting a lot of production out of that.”
Fond memories of Peppers were shared throughout Lambeau Field this week as several players and coaches said they are excited to see the ageless wonder. They referred to him as a “freak,” a “freak of nature,” and an “OG,” short for Original Gangster. And to a man, they all said Peppers can still play.
Though he was soft-spoken and unassuming with the media, Peppers was more vocal behind closed doors in Green Bay. He developed a reputation as a willing teacher who led by example. His reputation alone commanded respect across the locker room, but Peppers picked his moments of when to be vocal in front of the team.
“Everybody talked about how quiet he was and so forth, but we got to see another side of him,” McCarthy said. “He commanded a huge presence in our locker room. He did a great job from a leadership standpoint.
“One of my favorite memories of Julius — we have a pregame ritual where one of the captains is selected to speak to the team the last two minutes before we take the field. It was a Monday night game here, and it was Julius' turn to speak so he started going through his two-minute and he was on a roll, a big-time roll, and (football administration coordinator) Matt Klein taps me and was like, 'We're out of time.' And I said, 'Hell, don't worry about it, he's on a roll. Let him go.'
“It was one of the funniest things as we broke as a team and we come down the hall here and out the tunnel and you could see the TV people were like (waving us on the field). You could see we missed the introductions. We had to run onto the field. I thought that was classic. Those are the things you don't hear about, but he was a great teammate and you look forward to competing against him.”
Perhaps Sunday will be their last chance if Peppers decides to hang up his cleats before next season. But knowing Peppers, maybe it’s not.
“How long can he keep playing?” a reporter asked inside linebacker Joe Thomas.
“Until he wants to stop,” Thomas said.