Every Play Counts: Julius Peppers
by Michael David Smith
Is Julius Peppers underrated? That might seem like a silly question because everyone who follows football knows that Peppers is a good player, a rare talent who has not only the typical strength of a defensive end but also the speed and athleticism of the power forward he once was. But watching Peppers on every play of the Carolina Panthers' 23-21 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, my jaw dropped at seeing not just a good or even very good player, but a defensive lineman doing things I didn't think a defensive lineman could do.
Baltimore's blocking schemes revolved around controlling Peppers. On each play of the Ravens' first possession, both right tackle Tony Pashos and running back Jamal Lewis blocked Peppers. All three plays were passes, and on all three Lewis chipped Peppers before running his route because the Ravens figured that Pashos couldn't keep Peppers off quarterback Steve McNair without Lewis's help. Peppers didn't do anything extraordinary on that possession, but just seeing the way Baltimore opened the game showed how much its game plan focused on Peppers.
On the second possession, Baltimore still doubled Peppers, with little success. On the first play of the series both Pashos and right guard Keydrick Vincent blocked Peppers. On the second play, Vincent held Peppers, but it wasn't called. On the third play, Peppers bull-rushed Vincent, collapsing the pocket and forcing McNair into a bad throw, which strong safety Colin Branch intercepted. At this point, the Panthers' defense had been on the field for six plays. Peppers had been doubled four times and held once, and on the one play he was neither, he forced a turnover.
Holding was Baltimore's most effective strategy. On a second-and-4 on Baltimore's fifth possession, Peppers stunted to the inside and Vincent held him. In fact, Vincent held Peppers every time they went one-on-one. Later in the game Pashos started joining Vincent in holding. The officials never called it, though. It was actually a smart tactic. Referee Peter Morelli's crew was calling the game, and that crew has called by far the fewest holding penalties of any group of officials this year. If the officials aren't going to call it, the linemen might as well do it. My advice to all offensive linemen: When Morelli works your game, just hold all day.
On the Ravens' third possession, Carolina's defense revealed a different wrinkle when Peppers dropped into coverage on first-and-10. Peppers' presence kept McNair from having an easy checkdown to Lewis or tight end Todd Heap, and that forced McNair to hold onto the ball too long. Linebacker Chris Draft and defensive end Mike Rucker sacked him, knocking him out of the game.
Peppers dropped into coverage a few more times as Carolina zone-blitzed with Draft or other linebackers. On a first-and-10 in the third quarter, Todd Heap went in motion to the right and Peppers dropped back to cover Heap, which would usually be a linebacker's job. Kyle Boller (who played most of the game in relief of McNair) rolled to his right and threw to Heap, and Peppers tackled him for a nine-yard gain. In general, I don't like that strategy for the Panthers. Why not have Peppers rush the passer so Boller can't roll to the right in the first place, rather than having Peppers drop back and therefore giving Boller free rein to find someone open? It's not that Peppers can't cover the tight end, it's just that he's so great at rushing the passer that having him in coverage seems like a waste. It's an interesting strategy for an occasional change of pace, but generally if the other team is passing and Peppers isn't rushing, Carolina isn't using his talents properly.
After the sack that knocked McNair out of the game, Boller's first two plays were probably Peppers' most impressive plays of the day. On second-and-19, Peppers lined up at left end. Boller threw a short pass to Lewis along the sideline on the opposite side of the field, and Peppers pursued Lewis across the field and pushed him out of bounds after a gain of only five yards. Defensive ends just aren't supposed to run down running backs like that, but Peppers did it. And on the next play, Peppers made the tackle in pursuit on the opposite side of the field again. It was third-and-14 and Peppers rushed to the outside. Pashos blocked him, and running back Musa Smith helped with a chip. Boller rolled out and took off running on the other side of the field, and Peppers ran across the field and tackled him for a gain of only six yards.
That pursuit is what separates Peppers from other defensive ends. On third-and-15 on Baltimore's fourth possession, the Ravens ran a draw to Smith. Peppers started the play on an outside rush. On that type of play, the offense doesn't worry about the defensive end -- even the best defensive ends can't be expected to rush to the outside and then tackle a running back on a draw up the middle. But when Peppers recognized the draw, he reversed course, drilled Smith and forced a fumble. Peppers isn't like other defensive ends.
On a first-and-10 later, Mike Anderson took a handoff off the right tackle, running away from Peppers. But when the right side of the Panthers' defense bottled up Anderson, it was Peppers, pursuing the play from the backside, who tackled Anderson for a loss of two.
While I'm praising Peppers I should acknowledge the obvious, which is that he doesn't make every play. On a third-and-9 with Boller in the shotgun, Peppers tried to rush to the outside, and Pashos did a nice job allowing him to rush upfield but not collapse the pocket. Boller had time to pick up the first down while Peppers essentially took himself out of the play. But those plays were the exception, and Peppers' pressure masked some bad coverage from Carolina's secondary. On a third-and-6 on Baltimore's sixth possession, Heap beat Carolina defensive back James Anderson and was open deep, but Peppers' pressure forced Boller to throw the ball without getting completely set, causing an incompletion on what could have been a 40-yard gain. On one first-and-10 in the third quarter, Lewis was left to block Peppers one-on-one. That was a mismatch. Boller rolled to the outside, Peppers got past Lewis and got in Boller's face, and Boller had to throw the ball away to avoid a sack.
Sacks are the main way defensive linemen get attention, but I haven't even mentioned Peppers' two sacks Sunday. One was a first-and-10, when Peppers rushed straight ahead into Pashos, knocked him to the ground, and sacked Boller for a loss of six yards. The other came on a second-and-10 when Peppers rushed to the outside and evaded both Pashos and Vincent. Boller tried to run up the middle, and Peppers reversed course, getting into the middle of the field to sack Boller for a three-yard loss. Peppers shows a very instinctive ability to know where the ball carrier is going. Most defensive ends would have continued to rush to the outside, but Peppers seemed to sense that Boller was going to go up the middle, and he got there in time to sack him.
So if Peppers can sack quarterbacks, run down running backs, and cover tight ends, is there anything he can't do? If I were an opposing offensive coordinator, I'd try to run directly at him. Peppers is a strong player and a sure tackler, but if he showed any weakness Sunday it was that Pashos sometimes beat him in straight-ahead run blocking. But this is a mere quibble. Peppers showed on Sunday that he's not just a good player. He's the best defensive player in the NFL.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.