NFL: Peppers returning to Pro Bowl form
CHARLOTTE ó With five sacks and three forced fumbles in the last two games, Julius Peppers is looking like a Pro Bowl player again.
That doesn’t surprise his Carolina Panthers coach John Fox, who has always looked at his star defensive end that way.
“Julius has been here with us for some time and he’s had some great seasons and made some remarkable plays, so we’re used to it,” Fox said.
The Panthers should be use to it. Peppers is a three-time Pro Bowler and the franchise’s all-time career leader in sacks with 65.
After a rough season in 2008 in which he recorded just 2.5 sacks, Peppers seems back in the zone.
He moved to right end to start the season and has nine sacks in the last eight games, which ranks sixth in the NFL entering Sunday’s game against Atlanta. He’s also forced a league-high five fumbles to go along with 41 tackles, 17 quarterback pressures and five passes defended.
Panthers defensive tackle Damione Lewis said the difference in Peppers this year is that Peppers is “flying around and making plays all over the field.”
But Lewis said the most noticeable change in Peppers is what fans might not see ó the leadership he’s brought to the field.
Normally quiet and reserved, Peppers has been more outspoken in the huddle on game day since veteran defensive end Mike Rucker retired earlier this year. Now the senior member of the defense, Peppers has felt more compelled to take on a leadership role.
“It’s nice to hear him get riled up on the field. You don’t expect it coming out of him,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he can remember the first time Peppers got fired up in the huddle, screaming, “Let’s go defense!”
“The first time he did that, I was like, ‘Is that J.P.?’ ” Lewis said with a laugh. “Before this year he said absolutely nothing on the field. And then this year he’s been vocal throughout the season. It’s been quite an experience for me because that is one thing I didn’t expect to hear out of him because he’s such a quiet guy. It’s kind of strange, but we welcome it.”
Fox said Peppers’ improved numbers are the result of the defense’s overall improvement.
“Not that we were horrible last year (on defense),” Fox said. “But we weren’t scoring as many points and were seeing a little bit different style of offense in a large portion of games. It’s harder to be dynamic in those types of games when they’re two tight ends, two backs and one wide out running the ball every play. I think just the fact that we’ve been in the lead in some games and people are having to play some catch up puts them in a little more vulnerable position.”
Peppers’ contract expires after the season, but neither Peppers’ agent Carl Carey or team officials would comment on contract talks.
The Panthers could slap the franchise tag on him, but it would cost them almost $17 million under the salary cap for the 2009 season.
Lewis, for one, believes there’s no way the Panthers will let him walk
“I don’t think they’re going to let him leave,” Lewis said. “I don’t think (owner) Mr. (Jerry) Richardson is going to let him get out of here. So we’ll see what happens, but I expect him to be a Carolina Panther for his whole career. … You just don’t let talent like that walk away, I wouldn’t think.
“It would be hard to see him not be a Carolina Panthers given he grew up around here and played at the University of North Carolina and being drafted by the Panthers. To play the way has throughout the course of his career it would kind of be a disappointment to see him leave.”