Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers was a Chicago Bear in 2013, and with a minute left in the regular season, he had Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in his sights and the gas pedal to the floor.
But Peppers was slowed by a frantic block by fullback John Kuhn, and Rodgers uncorked a 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb that won the game, 33-28. The near-miss ended up being Peppers’ last play as a pass rusher in Chicago, and his last real shot at Rodgers – who would end up being his Packers teammate for the next three years.
Peppers, who returned for a second stint with the Panthers as a free agent last spring, will face Rodgers from the other sideline for the first time since that afternoon in 2013 at Soldier Field. After missing eight weeks while on injured reserve as he healed from a broken collarbone, Rodgers will start against Carolina at Bank of America Stadium.
Despite Rodgers missing so much time, Peppers is expecting the same savvy, slippery player he’s accustomed to.
You can bet he’s gunning for Rodgers, and although Peppers didn’t say it, he’ll take the shot if he gets a chance.
“Pep, for the last few years, hasn’t been able to get near (Rodgers),” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “He’s going to have the opportunity this week to hopefully get near him quite a few times.”
There’s a lot of respect on both sides. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said this week that Peppers is “special in so many different ways,” and was a privilege to have as a part of the organization; Peppers told the Observer he remains extraordinarily thankful to McCarthy and his staff for believing in his ability “when a lot of people thought I had lost it.”
McCarthy knew what many in Charlotte know now: He hasn’t.
At 37 years old, Peppers is tied for the team lead in sacks with 9.5, and if he gets No. 10 this season – nearly a sure bet at this point – he will become just the fourth player in NFL history to have at least 10 sacks in 10 or more different seasons.
Peppers rattled off the tips he has given to the Carolina defense regarding Rodgers’ play in the Panthers locker room on Thursday afternoon.
“I let the coaches detail those kind of things from their film study, and any kind of tip that I might have, whether it be ‘look out for the substitutions, he likes to get 12 people on the field’ or ‘watch out for the hard counts, the free plays,’ things like that,” he said.
Green Bay was 4-1 before Rodgers was injured, but now the the Packers are clawing for a shot at the playoffs.
His return, though, doesn’t mean Carolina is adding any extra pressure on its defense heading into Sunday. The team has been preparing all week as if the quarterback would start against them, even when the announcement wasn’t yet official.
“We’re not going to add any unnecessary pressure that we don’t need to,” said Peppers. “We’re going to treat this thing like it’s a regular game, regardless of who is playing quarterback. ...
“We’re going to play our game. We’re going to try to keep our tempo the same as it is, we’re not going to get into this ‘cat-and-mouse’ thing with Aaron. Because he does what he does well, and he’s the best at it. So we just are going to focus on us, and control what we can control.”
Knocking Rodgers out of his rhythm with the pressure Carolina has used successfully all year will be key, with those who line up with Peppers playing big roles, too. And they’ll all have their eyes on the bigger picture, a playoff race that becomes less hazy with each potential win.
“I’m glad Julius is on our side,” safety Kurt Coleman said. “But if you were to ask Julius the same question, I think he would say it’s because of this whole defense. Julius feeds off of Mario (Addison), K.K. (Short), (Kyle) Love, Star (Lotulelei).
“I really want to get him a Super Bowl ring. I want to get one for (Thomas Davis). I want to get one. It’s for those guys in their 16th year, their 14th year, you know, we don’t know how long they’re going to play. So we’re learning that we have to be able to lay it all on the line for those guys to hopefully get them something they have been working hard for their whole career.”