Carolina Panthers

Has J-Pepp lost a step?

Carolina's Julius Peppers is clueless to the reason his pass-rushing skills are suffering this year.
Carolina's Julius Peppers is clueless to the reason his pass-rushing skills are suffering this year.

CHARLOTTE -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers said Wednesday he's got no clear explanation for his lack of pass-rushing production this year, but went along with what coach John Fox said Monday -- he's neither sick nor injured.

"I feel like everybody else -- things haven't been going the way we would hope for or that I would have hoped for, but there's still time left to get things corrected," Peppers said.

When asked if he knew the reason why his numbers were off, he gave a small shrug.

"Nah," he replied.

"I feel like I can play better," he continued. "Am I playing as bad as people make it seem? No. But am I playing as good as I have in the past? No."

Peppers presents one of the most frustrating quandaries -- at least the one not involving the quarterback position.

All his other stats track closely with his career averages, but his pass-rush numbers (1.5 sacks and nine pressures) aren't on the same board.

His 38 tackles in nine games goes to a 67.5 pace, not that far off his five-year average of 69.8. And he's averaging slightly more forced fumbles and batted passes.

But his 10.7 sacks and 30.8 quarterback pressures per year dwarf the current numbers -- 2.7 sacks and 16.0 pressures.

There are a number of semi-reasonable explanations, although the simple fact remains that more is expected of a player who's been to three Pro Bowls and posted 53.5 sacks in five seasons.

Teams have begun throwing more quick routes to dampen the Panthers' pressure from the defensive line, but that doesn't tell the whole story. He's also not being double-teamed as much, but he's noticed a trend of blockers "bailing out" on him -- taking a deep drop to prevent him from coming around the edge, sending him inside where there are more arms, legs and bodies between him and quarterback.

"There are different things you can do, different things you can do without double-teaming," Peppers said.

His teammates are quick to rally around him. After all, they've seen the stretches of dominance as well.

He's had six streaks in which he's gone at least four games without a sack. But he's had four stretches of at least four games with at least one, including a pair of five-game runs in 2002 and 2006.

"We've been in situations, I don't know if it was last year or when, but early on, like the first five games, he had none -- then he just reeled them off," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "He's got that kind of capability. So that's the reason why I don't sweat it. Can I put a finger on it, why as a team and a defense and as a line (there's no pressure), I couldn't tell you."

Peppers hasn't done anything consistently this year. The only game where he put anything on the sack board was in Arizona, although he did block a field goal in New Orleans to help steal a win.

The sudden lack of production is cause for concern, as the Panthers have to decide what to do with him long-term.

He's under contract through 2008, and there have been talks about an extension -- which not that long ago everyone assumed would make him the highest-paid defensive player in the league.

But there's nothing new on that front. General manager Marty Hurney wouldn't talk specifics about the contract situation, but the slump hasn't changed the way they view him.

"We all know the caliber of player Julius is," Hurney said. "As far as the other stuff, we'll just wait until the end of the year and evaluate that like everyone else." The Panthers tried moving him around more often and using him in pass coverage to show new looks, but have largely abandoned that, with defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac admitting a month ago they wanted to simplify things.

"I'm happy with how I'm being used," Peppers said. "I'm happy with the defense. That has nothing to do with any of it."

Peppers rolled his eyes a little when asked if there was a physical element to this year's struggles.

"I don't know or understand where you are all getting that from," he said. "Sometimes things don't happen the way you want them to."

He missed two stretches of training camp with what was described as an "illness," but said it wasn't a factor.

"I'm fine now," he said. "You have to take the good with the bad when you are a person in the position like myself. Sometimes you get looked at harder than other people. I can take the criticism and I can take the heat.

"But there's no excuses for my play or for this team's play."

Rucker's seen no evidence of frustration from the 27-year-old Peppers, who usually keeps a low profile with the media.

"It's not like when the cameras are on, he's like me-me-me-me-me," Rucker said. "If anything, you guys just talked to him at a time like that. When you win, you don't want to get too high and when you lose, you don't want to get too low. You want to stay balanced."

By all appearances, Peppers is doing just that. He answered questions evenly, never showing a hint of frustration at anything other than the notion there's some secret reason for all this.

At the same time, there's no easy answer.

"What's going on is I haven't made the plays I made in the past," Peppers said. "The things that y'all are accustomed to are not happening right now.

"It's disappointing for me. And I'm also disappointed for the team that we haven't done as well as we wanted to. And the season is not over with yet, but it's just one of those things, you have to keep grinding, keep working."

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