Don’t let Peppers’ low sack total fool you

Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli approached the offseason evaluation of defensive end Julius Peppers(notes) with caution.

The second overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft, Peppers was a five-time Pro Bowl selection who had racked up 25 sacks in the previous two seasons, yet, during the 2010 offseason, he was an unrestricted free agent.

“We did a lot of homework on him,” Smith said, “and everything came back the same.”

Despite his immense NFL success – 81 sacks in his first eight seasons – Peppers was dogged by questions that he wasn’t consistent and that he didn’t fulfill his potential. So Smith wanted to be comfortable that Peppers was going to be a cornerstone defender and not a free-agent disaster.

Smith sought the input of numerous people he trusted, including his friend Ron Meeks, the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator in 2009 and 2010.

“ ‘One of the best guys you will have a chance to coach,’ ” Smith recalled one person telling him. “Everything was positive.”

Peppers was an exception, so the Bears made an exception.

They uncharacteristically splurged in free agency to sign Peppers to a six-year contract that included $42 million in guarantees. The Bears hadn’t reached the playoffs since their Super Bowl run during the 2006 season, and Smith’s signature – his Tampa 2 defense – had fallen on hard times.

The root of the problem was the defensive line, a unit that hadn’t produced a lineman who topped 10 sacks since then-rookie Mark Anderson(notes) tallied a dozen in 2006. In addition, perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris(notes) wasn’t the same disruptive force anymore, so the Bears had to use more blitzes.

Ultimately, Peppers didn’t come close to his career high in sacks (14.5), and he was even two shy of double-digits. But the Bears have no buyer’s remorse, at least not after this season.

“What he’s brought to us is special,” Marinelli said, “because you don’t get … ” Marinelli didn’t finish the sentence.

“To get an elite player like that … “

Julius Peppers signed a big $91.5 million deal last offseason with the Bears. He led the team with eight stacks.
(Bob Donnan/US Presswire)

Again, Marinelli didn’t finish his thought, instead highlighting what stands out in his mind about Peppers: his freakish athleticism, his willingness to be coached, and his professionalism.

“When I look at him, that’s what a pro football player is,” Marinelli said. “He comes in, he’s always on time, ready to work, takes great notes, doesn’t make errors, and he’s always sprinting to the football.”

Statistics can be misleading.

The Bears finished 17th in the NFL with 34 sacks, one less than last season.

Nose tackle Anthony Adams(notes) automatically commands a double team. But there isn’t a defensive end in the NFL who strikes more fear than Peppers. He typically opens up one-on-one opportunities for other linemates, namely defensive end Israel Idonije(notes).

Undrafted, Idonije distinguished himself as one of his team’s most versatile players, starring on special teams and providing quality snaps on the line, mostly at defensive tackle. But after the 2009 season, Smith informed Idonije he’d have a chance to start at defensive end.

Idonije capitalized, earning the job and tying Peppers for the team lead with eight sacks.

“[Peppers] can force them to change what they’re doing, because they have to pay more attention to him,” Idonije said. “I’ve been fortunate this year just to be able to reap the benefits of that.”

Peppers makes plays in spite of double teams and he empowers Smith’s Tampa 2-based defense to stick to its roots, relying on a four-man rush instead of counting on linebackers and defensive backs to blitz. According to Football Outsiders, the Bears rushed six or more defenders on 16.7 percent of passes in 2009, the third-highest rate in the league. They also sent only four players on 56.4 percent of pass plays (22nd). This season, though, the Bears have sent six or more defenders just 1.4 percent of plays (25th), and they relied on a four-man rush 72.2 percent of pass plays, the third-highest total in the league.

Peppers was 14th in the NFL with 34 knockdowns and quarterback hurries, according to STATS LLC.

“Anytime you get an elite pass rusher, it’s going to help our system because it’s based on pressure,” Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes) said. “That’s huge for us.”

Not all sacks are created equal. Smith noted that some players may pad their totals with one or two monster games, particularly when a starting offensive tackle might be sidelined. In regard to Peppers, Smith said, “He’s been an MVP candidate in the league.”

In the season opener, Peppers knocked Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) out of the game and forced a fumble that helped swing momentum. Against his former team, Peppers intercepted a pass, and his athleticism helped limit Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick(notes) to 44 rushing yards. On one play in the fourth quarter, Vick had nothing but space in front of him but Peppers chased him down from behind and made a diving tackle.

In Marinelli’s scheme, Peppers can’t, as defensive linemen like to say, pin his ears back and get after the quarterback.

Peppers played a strong role in containing Michael Vick in Chicago's victory over Philadelphia in Week 12.
(Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

“A lot of guys in this league just rush,” Peppers said. “They put their hand down and they rush, and they have no idea where the slot is going, where the center is going, or where the help is going. They don’t have any idea about any of it.”

Marinelli has helped him elevate his understanding of protection schemes. Still, the veteran coach also has empowered Peppers to trust his own instincts.

“He gives me freedom to the do the things I do best,” Peppers said. “He doesn’t want me to play like a statue or a robot. If I see an opportunity to make a play, I can break the play sometimes, and go for it.”

The Bears’ run defense was ranked second – its highest since the 2001 season – and it also allowed the third-fewest points (16.0).

“Julius is an enormous factor on anybody’s team because you just have to pay so much attention to where he is because he can change the game in one play,” Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “So we have to find ways to keep him from being the factor.”

Getting double- and triple-teamed is “just the way of life” for Peppers. He can’t remember the last game – if ever – someone counted on just an offensive tackle to handle him.

And although he didn’t get to 10 sacks, Peppers said he considers 2010 one of his best seasons.

“I don’t get concerned with that type of stuff,” Peppers said of the statistics. “I’m getting ready to play in the second round of the playoffs, at home, and we got a good chance at winning, so I couldn’t be happier right now.

“Hopefully, I can add a couple [sacks] this postseason.”

Peppers was raised in Bailey, N.C., attended the University of North Carolina, where he was also a basketball standout, and starred for the Carolina Panthers. After some acrimonious experiences with the Panthers, Peppers was determined to get a fresh start in another town, and he was fascinated with Chicago, a big city that also boasted one of football’s storied franchises.

“But, the thing that was attractive coming here were the players,” Peppers said. “I battled these guys from the other sideline, and I was always impressed with how they played and how they hit.”

Peppers isn’t outgoing by nature, and he never embraced his celebrity in Charlotte. With the Bears, he doesn’t avoid reporters, but he also doesn’t make himself available too often, deferring to teammates.

“He has money and fame, and fortunate and all that,” Smith said, “but that’s just not him. He just wants to be one of the guys. Since Day 1, we can’t coach him too hard, and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for the team.”

Added Urlacher, “He’s just a normal guy until Sunday, when he jumps up and makes all the plays.”

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Updated Friday, Jan 14, 2011