Julius Peppers is 38 years old. Yet he ranks second on the Carolina Panthers in sacks.
That would be remarkable for any other 38-year-old, but we judge Peppers by a different standard. He has taught us to do that over the years. Peppers was doing Zion Williamson sorts of things before Zion Williamson was even born. His athletic skills have long been described as freakish, which is part of what has allowed Peppers to play in both a Super Bowl and a Final Four.
This year, though, Peppers and Father Time have sometimes engaged in a stalemate at the line of scrimmage.
Peppers has a modest three sacks after nine games — again, good by most standards, but not for the player who ranks No. 4 on the NFL’s all-time sack list.
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Peppers has had at least seven sacks in each of the past 10 seasons. But the only player in NFL history to have more than 150 sacks and 10 interceptions in his career has got some work to do to get to seven sacks in 2018. He would need four sacks in Carolina’s final seven games while playing for a Panthers defense that just got blasted by Pittsburgh in a 52-21 loss.
“I feel like I’m holding up,” Peppers said this week in a group interview about his health and stamina. “I feel pretty good right now. But this is the time of the year when you take it up a notch. ... This is where the urgency goes up a little bit — for everyone.”
‘Sometimes you just can’t stop it’
In 2017, Peppers made a triumphant return to the Panthers — the team he played for from 2002-09 — and finished with an astonishing 11 sacks. He has done a few astonishing things this season, too, such as sacking Ben Roethlisberger on one play and dropping into coverage and diving to bat down a Roethlisberger pass downfield two plays later on Nov. 8.
But those plays were an exception for a Panthers defense that got embarrassed in its last outing and gave Roethlisberger far too much time. “It happens sometimes,” Peppers said. “You don’t play well. The team you’re playing against plays well. ... And sometimes you just can’t stop it.”
Sunday, Carolina (6-3) goes on the road again to face a Detroit team that is 3-6 and has allowed 16 sacks over the past two games. It’s an opportunity for the Panthers’ front four to get well. But the Panthers pass rush has also been on-and-off, with no one except Mario Addison (7.5 sacks) getting to the quarterback with consistency.
“We need more,” Peppers said of the pass rush. “We need to be a lot better. ... This week for sure, we need to pick it up.”
Peppers’ role this season has been almost exactly the same as it was in 2017. He played 50.1 percent of the defensive snaps in 2017 and has played 50.3 percent of them this year. Although he flirted with the idea of retirement in early 2018, Peppers has been a steady player once he decided to play at least one more year (signing a $5-million contract for 2018).
“I think he’s been very solid,” coach Ron Rivera said.
“Pep has been Pep,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “He’s done everything asked of him. ... He’s a guy that obviously we all know he’s a first-ballot hall of famer and he just takes that approach each and every time he comes to practice.”
‘See how it plays out’
Peppers has made headlines off the field this season with his hurricane relief efforts and his recent nomination for a national NFL sportsmanship award. Once again, it’s possible we are seeing the last two months of Peppers’ storied career right now. Already the oldest defensive player in the NFL — Panthers safety Mike Adams (37) is second — Peppers isn’t certain he will come back for an 18th NFL season in 2019.
When asked if Panthers owner David Tepper’s plan to have an indoor practice facility in 2019 was enough to make him come back, Peppers laughed.
We’re taking this thing one game at a time at this point,” Peppers said. “We’re going to see how it plays out, man.”
He does like the idea of the indoor facility, though.
“It’s going to help us in every way,” Peppers said. “It’s going to help us attract free agents, it’s going to help us do everything. I’m excited to see where it’s going to be at and how nice it’s going to be.”
As one of the more famous former dual-sport Tar Heels, Peppers had no comment about North Carolina’s 1-8 football team but did say he was looking forward to seeing UNC’s basketball team play.
As for Williamson — the Duke freshman basketball star who at 6-7 and 285 pounds is almost exactly Peppers’ dimensions (6-7 and 295) — Peppers said: “I’ve got to see him a little bit more. I’ve seen the highlights. He looks like a decent athlete — well, a great athlete. I’m looking forward to watching him too.”
First, though, the Panthers have to get their defense revitalized.
“I think overall we needed to see we can’t just roll it out there and expect to win,” Peppers said of the humbling in Pittsburgh.
And this Sunday, Peppers said: “We need to bring it.”