CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers know they can't play defense the way they want to without Julius Peppers.
So now, they're apparently looking to let him be Julius Peppers again.
Among his problems in recent weeks has been an inability to pressure the passer. Part of that might be physical (he was witnessed getting his pulse checked and taking an inhaler last week), but part of it might be scheme. The Panthers, hoping to take advantage of his tremendous athletic gifts, have been standing him up, sending him back in coverage, many things other than simply pointing him at a quarterback like a missile.
"We tried to do some things with him early; we backed off of those," Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said last week. "And now we're just going to try to turn him loose.
"Believe me, we know who our best pass-rusher is. We just didn't want people to know exactly where he was on every snap. That was our main goal. And we'll continue to move him around a little bit. It's not like we're going to stop doing that, but we might cut back on some of that."
That would be welcome news for a defense that has clearly missed a consistent contribution from its best player.
Peppers hasn't had a sack in the Panthers' first four games. That's not specifically a cause for alarm, since it's the sixth time in his career he's been shut out for four weeks in a row.
What's amazing is that he's not getting particularly close.
He has just two quarterback pressures (a stat kept by coaches as they review game film) in four games this year. That's fewer than defensive end Mike Rucker and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins (four each). He's also behind three guys with three each: Linebacker Thomas Davis, nickel cornerback Richard Marshall, and backup defensive end Otis Grigsby.
No matter how his defenders try to couch it, it's painfully clear that things aren't right.
"Any pass rusher, and I've been around a lot of good ones and had the privilege of coaching a lot of good ones, they all go through slumps," Trgovac said. "I think that's what he's in right now. It's my job to try to put him in better spots to get him out of it. And it's not that we weren't doing that before. I'm not sitting here saying we had a hundred million things for him, that's not the case.
"Sometimes in coaching you don't make the right moves on things. You have to be smart enough to pull back and change your mind, or adapt and see what's working and not working."
For the most part, there seems to be no alarm among his bosses and peers. They've seen him go through dominant stretches before as well, so a four-game slide is nothing they're wringing their hands over.
Coach John Fox, after dismissing any health concerns, seemed to indicate that he didn't want to put any more pressure on his star than is already there.
"It's a team game. I don't think it's ever one guy," Fox said. "I think Julius, because of his rep and his ability, ... I'm not in favor of blaming one guy.
"There's no question we've got work to do. Anywhere on defense. We've been good two weeks and bad two weeks. That's where we are right now."
Likewise, Peppers has shown a few flashes of his old form. Against Houston, he had a potentially tone-setting play early, when he burst through the line and dropped running back Ahman Green for a 2-yard loss. Early in the win at Atlanta, he leaped into the air and nearly caught a Joey Harrington pass one-handed, batting it back to him instead.
But while you could normally fill a book with such plays, those have been nearly the only instances this year when he's looked like himself.
He hasn't talked with reporters since the day after the loss to Houston in Week 2, but those who know him best are doing everything they can to quell the panic.
"Yeah, you keep chopping wood," Rucker said when asked how Peppers could break out of the current malaise. "The tree hasn't fallen yet, so you just keep chopping. It's as simple as that ... That's our mindset. Keep hitting that tree and eventually it will fall."
Perhaps, but there could be a chance that he's beating his head against a wall instead.
Trgovac said Peppers hasn't come to him asking for a change in the way he's being used. If there's a frustration at the way he's being used, he hasn't expressed it.
"All I can tell you is this: That kid is working his butt off, he's very receptive to what we're talking to him about," Trgovac said. "I've seen some things on tape that I can help him with, coach Sal (Sunseri, the defensive line coach) has seen some things, Foxy has seen some things and he's very receptive to all that stuff. He's got a lot of pride.
"Julius is a very team guy. When you ask him to do something, he does it."
As such, he's hugely respected in the locker room, doing many of the small things few ever see -- demonstrating his leadership in ways beyond talking. Whether it's watching extra tape, encouraging a rookie on the other side of the ball, or dozens of other anecdotes, it creates a frustration for his teammates to hear him hammered so in the court of public opinion.
In fact, some inside the building have speculated that part of Jenkins' no heart/no passion diatribe was aimed his way. "It might look good when you look at the stats or you look at somebody's 40 time or you look at everything else, but it doesn't matter," Jenkins said last week. "How many skills you have, it doesn't matter. ..."
Even though Jenkins didn't mention any names, plenty of others have; as Peppers has been roundly criticized in newspapers around the region and on the airwaves of sports talk radio on a daily basis.
"He's one of the best in the business," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. "That's tough. You see him on the field, you know he's one of the best to ever play the game. I've never understood why he gets all the criticism. ... He's human, I'm pretty sure it does get to him.
"He's just got to play, work through it. This game is a lot like life. Everything's not going to go your way all the time. You've just got to face adversity and go through it."
We'll see beginning this week whether the back-to-basics approach Trgovac hinted at helps. The Saints have allowed just four sacks in three games, and right tackle Jon Stinchcomb has given up just one to Peppers in the past.
But as anyone who's watched Peppers over the years understands, matchups mean little. When he's on, he can get through nearly anything an offense does to try to stop him.
That's why seeing him when he's so far off mostly just confuses them.
"The one thing I know about him is he has a lot of pride, and he wants to work this thing out," Trgovac said. "I guess what I'm saying is, we're not sitting around saying he's going to be fine because he's Julius Peppers. It doesn't matter who he is. I've coached Bruce Smith, Richard Dent, William Fuller. Even the great ones, you've got to work with those guys. That's what we're doing.
"And any of them get frustrated. That's all part of growing up, and he's got to learn that. It's all part of getting to the next level of his game. He's done that and I think he'll get over this one, as well."