Peppers is on the ball

Panthers defensive end relies on talent, drive to dominate offenses

October 12, 2006|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

The Carolina Panthers' quick turnaround from the NFL's most disappointing team to one of the league's hottest shouldn't be a surprise when considering the face of their defense.

Defensive end Julius Peppers is one of the most dynamic players in the game because his drive matches his athleticism.

He puts relentless pressure on quarterbacks. He chases down running backs going from sideline to sideline. He even blocks field goals.

"He's definitely up there with the greatest I've been around," said coach John Fox, whose Panthers (3-2) play the Ravens (4-1) on Sunday. "You just turn on the tape and he never ceases to amaze you. It's not just his athletic ability but his work ethic and effort to get to the ball is pretty remarkable."

In the Panthers' 20-12 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, the lasting image was Peppers chasing quarterback Charlie Frye all over the field, bursting through double teams and flinging blockers to the side.

But Peppers' most defining play of the season came in the opener, when he ran from the other side of the field to catch swift Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn.

"In the years I've been in the league, I don't think I've seen any defensive player be able to dominate a game the way Julius does," seventh-year defensive end Al Wallace told Carolina reporters this week. "How many times in a row is he hitting the quarterback? It's incredible. I catch myself trying to watch him to see what he's doing. He's absolutely the most amazing defensive player I've seen in my lifetime."

A two-sport athlete at the University of North Carolina (football and basketball), Peppers was a raw talent when the Panthers selected him second overall in the 2002 draft. But that didn't mean he didn't make an immediate impact.

His first game was against the Ravens in the 2002 season opener, when Peppers deflected a fourth-quarter pass by Chris Redman (which was intercepted by linebacker Dan Morgan) to seal the 10-7 win. Peppers, a Pro Bowl starter in 2003 and 2004, said his game has changed since the Ravens last met him.

"I think I have a different mentality in approaching the game," Peppers said. "As a younger player, I think I relied on athletic ability a little too much. When I was making plays, I really didn't have a true understanding of the game and the schemes. Over the year, I have concentrated on that area. That's one of the main keys for me having a fast start to the season."

In five games, Peppers has 31 tackles (fourth on the team), six sacks (first), 14 quarterback hits (first), two forced fumbles (first), three batted passes (second) and two blocked field goals (first).

He will certainly draw the attention of the Ravens' offense, especially right tackle Tony Pashos.

"We talk about that player you have to account for on every play and sometimes it's overused. In this case, it's well-deserved," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's so physical, yet so athletic. This is a guy like the great ones, you got to account for on every play or he's going to find a way to hurt you."

It's a very rare occurrence for teams to assign just one blocker to Peppers. Offenses usually put a tight end or a running back to help the right tackle with Peppers.

"It used to be frustrating," he said. "You go into the game knowing that it's going to happen. You know they're trying to take you out of the game. You got to find a way to beat it. I accept it as a challenge."

The challenge for the Panthers early this season was starting 0-2 after being dubbed a Super Bowl favorite.

Carolina has since won three straight games after getting back injured receiver Steve Smith and finding stability at middle linebacker. The Panthers initially replaced starter Dan Morgan (who was placed on injured reserve yesterday) with Adam Seward but found more success with Chris Draft, who is undersized but more experienced.

"To start the season, we were about as unfortunate as you could get," Fox said. "We didn't get off to a real smooth start as far as the injury bug. It takes you a while to regroup from that."

The Panthers also needed to regroup mentally.

"After the first game, we realized that we weren't as good a football team as we thought we could be at the time," Peppers said. "We just had a mindset of getting better each week. When you work hard, good things happen."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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