Julius Peppers has a goal for this Carolina Panthers defense. He would like it to rank No. 1 at the end of the 2017 NFL season.
“I think we’ve got a shot,” Peppers said.
Peppers spoke to the media at large Sunday for the first time in the six months since he signed the contract in March that put him back in Carolina for his 16th NFL season. He said during the group interview following Carolina’s 23-3 opening-day victory over San Francisco that he believed the Panthers had the talent to be the NFL’s No. 1 defense.
“The talent is one thing,” Peppers said, “but the work ethic and the coaching is another. And we have an excellent coaching staff that is going to demand the best out of everybody… It’s one game, and we’ve got a long way to go. But I thought today was really nice, a really good start.”
Peppers, who at age 37 is the NFL’s fifth-leading sacker of all time, contributed half a sack to the victory and also had a legal and hard hit on the 49ers’ Brian Hoyer that forced an incompletion. That play nearly gave Peppers 1.5 sacks for his first game in a Panthers uniform since 2009, rather than the 0.5 he had.
“Those things are like that,” Peppers said. “Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t. But those cumulative hits (on the quarterback) have an effect over the course of the game.”
Peppers also said he hadn’t taken questions from most of the reporters who regularly cover the team for the past six months because he wanted to concentrate on looking forward and not back.
“I just wanted to have something to talk about, you know what I mean?” Peppers said. “Now we have something to talk about. I didn’t want to talk about ‘How does it feel to be back?’ Why did you leave? This that and the third?’ Now we can talk about football.”
The Peppers plan
The Panthers unveiled their plan for using Peppers this season on Sunday, and it seems like it would be sustainable for the long haul. Peppers did not start at defensive end – Mario Addison and Charles Johnson did. But Peppers played 26 defensive snaps, which worked out to 46 percent of the 49ers’ offensive plays. He also played seven snaps on special teams, where Carolina is using him as a wingman to block opposing rushers on Graham Gano’s field-goal and extra point attempts.
“We’re going to monitor it as the season goes,” Peppers said of his snap count. “I thought today was nice. We had a good rotation.”
Peppers, of course, has a long history with the Panthers. Carolina chose him No. 2 overall out of North Carolina in the 2002 NFL draft, and he would play the next eight seasons for the Panthers. His departure was somewhat messy. Peppers was ready to leave the state where he had grown up and played football at every level, and the Panthers offering to make him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL was not enough to sway him.
He had productive stints in both Chicago and Green Bay before returning in March with Carolina on a one-year, $3.5-million deal. An almost certain NFL Hall of Famer, what Peppers lack is a Super Bowl ring – and he hopes to get it in Charlotte.
“It feels like home,” Peppers said Sunday of playing for the Panthers again. “’It feels like I never left. It’s been a very nice reception.”
Teammates have been floored at how athletic and imposing Peppers still is at age 37. Quarterback Cam Newton said in training camp of the 6-7, 295-pound Peppers: “Probably the biggest human being I’ve seen in my life on the football field.”
Said linebacker Thomas Davis, one of the few players still on the roster who played alongside Peppers in his first go-around with the team, after Sunday’s game: “Man – same old Julius. He’s a beast. He creates matchup problems for the other team, and he still has a lot of juice.”
‘I’m having a lot of fun’
Peppers was equally complimentary of his defensive teammates, singling out linebackers Davis and Luke Kuechly for praise.
“TD is TD,” Peppers said of Davis. “He’s the glue. He’s the heart.”
And Kuechly’s interception? “Oh my God,” Peppers said. “I’ve been watching these guys from afar for years. But to finally see them up close, in action, is impressive.”
Peppers said he was particularly pleased with four things Carolina’s defense did Sunday: Limiting the 49ers to only 51 rushing yards; sacking Hoyer four times and hitting him several others; getting two takeaways; and making three fourth-down stops. The defensive end said the fourth-down stops were a “morale killer” for the 49ers.
Peppers’ primary residence is in Miami, so he spent some of Sunday night checking to see what sort of damage it sustained in Hurricane Irma. He was not clear as to how it had fared in the immediate aftermath of the game.
But he was certain that his “second” debut for the Panthers had been a success. “I’m having a lot of fun,” Peppers said. “I’m back with the guys, I’m back at home, and we’re winning. We won. So it’s fun.”