Panthers: Quiet preseason puts target on Peppers
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó After his failed campaign to leave Carolina and with his salary cap-busting $16.7 million salary, Julius Peppers was sure to face intense scrutiny this season.
It took only two preseason games ó and his meager total of one tackle and no sacks ó for the defensive end’s critics to pounce. A rare interview may not have helped, either.
“I mean, all this is is a practice with a time and a score,” Peppers said Saturday in Miami after being held without a tackle, sack or quarterback hurry in a matchup with Dolphins Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long. “It’s not like we are game-planning for each other or trying to make any statements right now.”
The four-time Pro Bowl selection speaks so infrequently ó he declined an interview request after practice Tuesday ó that the little he does say is dissected for days. The quote led to a flood of angry talk radio callers and message board posters who questioned Peppers’ commitment after he loudly declared in the offseason he had “maxed out” in Carolina.
Peppers had a career-high 141/2 sacks last season, bouncing back from a career-low 21/2 a year earlier. The Panthers were determined to keep him ó at the expense of other positions.
A slew of preseason injuries have exposed Carolina’s lack of depth, which is largely due to Peppers’ monster contract. The Panthers didn’t sign one unrestricted free agent from another team and lost several key backups this offseason because Peppers’ $18.2 million cap figure takes up about 14 percent of Carolina’s available salary pool.
But if there is angst around the team, it’s hidden well among the players and coaches. The quiet, unassuming Peppers was joking with a couple players as he left the field Tuesday.
“You hate to say it’s no big deal, but that’s kind of what it is,” quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “It’s, ‘All right he’s back.’ That’s pretty much it, because he never has a circus around him. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
After skipping all offseason workouts and not meeting new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks until he reported to training camp, Peppers had to quickly learn a new system. With few blitzes, it relies on the majority of the quarterback pressure coming from the ends.
“Defensive end is not an overly scientific position,” coach John Fox said. “He came back in great shape. He’s picked up very quickly what we’re doing. A lot of it is the same we’ve done in the past. It’s just a matter of some different techniques. Other than that he’s doing fine.”
He’s just yet to produce in roughly three quarters of play over two exhibition games.
Peppers was credited with only one assist on a tackle in the preseason opener against the New York Giants. Then Saturday in Miami, Long kept Peppers far away from Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington.
Yet Peppers was unconcerned after the game, and had little interest in talking about his November rematch with Long, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft.
“I don’t have it circled on the calendar,” Peppers said. “When it comes, we’ll get to it.”
Up next is Peppers’ first home game since his tumultuous offseason, Saturday against Baltimore. Whether he’s cheered or booed may not matter as much as how he and the defensive line fare in what will be the longest stint of the preseason. The starters are expected to play into the third quarter.
“We’ve got to work on everything,” Peppers said. “It’s a new scheme, so we have to get adjusted. That’s what the preseason is for.”
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