Carolina Panthers

Panthers need Peppers to return to dominant form

CHARLOTTE -- At a time when more is being asked of him on the field and off, Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers has seemingly done less this season.

Peppers has 10 tackles, no sacks and just one quarterback pressure in the Panthers' first two games combined, according to the stats the team tabulates after coaches grade the game tape.

While he's far from the reason the Panthers fell 34-21 to Houston on Sunday, his own slow start mirrors the struggles the team's going through this season. After a solid opener in St. Louis, the Panthers fell back against the Texans, allowing 34 unanswered points to turn a potential home win into another embarrassing loss here.

"I feel like it's good," Peppers said when asked to evaluate his own start Monday. "About the same as last year. I don't know, the stats aren't identical, but I feel good about it. I think I'm playing decent, pretty good."

Peppers was known as a slow starter earlier in his career, though he shed that reputation last season. After being held in check in the opener against Atlanta in 2006, Peppers came back with eight sacks and 14 pressures in the next five games.

This year, his impact has been limited. He has made several nice plays in the running game (including an eye-popping stop of Ahman Green for a 2-yard loss in the first quarter), but his own pass rush and the team's has been nearly non-existent.

The Panthers have just one sack (by backup defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead) and 11 pressures for the year.

That's hardly what they expected from the line as a whole, or specifically Peppers in his seventh season. In fact, there are probably more expectations than ever on the three-time Pro Bowler. During training camp, owner Jerry Richardson singled him out, asking him to raise his game to take over the defense with the retirement of safety Mike Minter.

"Your time is now," the owner said that day.

Peppers waited more than a week to address those comments in Spartanburg, never one to rise to such baits. And though he's clearly the identity of the Panthers defense, he sloughs off the notion that there's any external burden on him.

"I don't want to say I feel the pressure from the coaches or anything; but I feel it from myself because I'm getting older and kind of being the face of the defense, or the name behind the defense," he said Monday. "I feel a responsibility to myself to make more plays and perform better. But it's not coming from anywhere else but myself.

"I feel like I've done what I'm supposed to do. I'm where I'm supposed to be. A few mistakes here and there, but other than that, I'm doing good. No, I don't have six sacks this year, but that will come. Don't worry about that. I'm not going to worry about getting sacks and doing those type of things because that will come."

Panthers coach John Fox said part of the reason Peppers has been so quiet had to do with the plays Houston was calling. With the Texans providing a heavy dose of play-action passing and bootlegs (not to mention a big lead), Fox said there were few clean pass-rush opportunities.

"I think with the style of offense we faced last week, running play action, there are quite a few blockers there," Fox said. "It's hard to get immediate pressure, and times we had immediate pressure, we didn't have very good coverage.

"As it relates to Julius, he does get attention, and we'll continue to try to find ways to free him up. But when you're playing play-action, down 20-some points, they're not going to take a lot of liberties in protection for anybody to get there."

The Panthers are also using Peppers differently this season, taking advantage of his athleticism in coverage more often. That came up specifically against St. Louis, where he frequently shadowed running back Steven Jackson, but he did it against the Texans, as well.

Peppers said it looked more frequent than it actually was, since some of his drop-back chances came when they had three down linemen, and he was standing up like a linebacker.

"It's about the same as previous years, but it's coming out of different formations," he said. "It may look like I'm dropping more because I'm dropping from three linemen down and last year we did it from four down. We're still doing it from four, but it's looking like I'm dropping more because I'm standing up more.

"I feel like I can be effective in both situations with my hand down rushing and standing up. Sometimes you have to play to the offense. If they have four receivers running around like St. Louis, sometimes you might need another guy standing up in the middle of the field. So it depends on the team. I think I'm valuable in both ways."

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