Eye In The Sky: Julius Peppers

banner-1.php

by DUSTY EVELY

I apologize for my absence. Once I decided to focus on this Julius Peppers post, I stopped working on my regular Packers defense posts. This one took me longer than I thought it would, and I ran into a number of roadblocks along the way that made it take even longer. Once I got done with my film study, I found myself coming up with ideas of numbers to use. Once I started down that path, I started running more numbers and ended up spiraling into a black hole of spreadsheets (which I can assure you is every bit as exciting as it sounds). But now that the season is less than a month away, I thought it was time to stop messing with numbers and just sit down and write this with what I have. Big thanks to Michael for his endless patience in dealing with me and my lackadaisical writing schedule.

This was a time-consuming project, but it was also a terrific experience. I wish I had time to do this with more players.

Before I get started, I’d like to say a few words about the upcoming season. As you’ve probably realized, I won’t have time to finish my posts on the 2013 season before the 2014 season starts. In fact, I doubt I’ll do another post before the season starts. My plan for the upcoming season is to do a post on every game the week after it happens. It takes a few days after a game for the All-22 film to show up, so I’m hoping to get posts up by the Thursday following the game. I imagine they’ll be a lot like my 2013 defensive posts, except I’ll be looking at both sides of the ball. I’m thinking about doing a second post where I look at other games around the league, or do some kind of mailbag column or something like that. I haven’t really decided yet. Any suggestions/feedback is always welcome. You’re also welcome to email me at DustyEvely@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter. I always love talking with Packer fans.

My experience with Peppers has been somewhat limited. Obviously I’ve seen him a couple of times a year since he signed with Chicago, but I never really sat down and looked closely at his body of work lately. I know he was once a dominant player, but his play has dropped off a bit as he has aged. It’s possible that time has fully caught up with Peppers, but I like to believe there’s still something left in the tank.

Pro Football Focus has his 2013 season listed as -7.6. That’s not a good score. However, only -0.7 of that is due to his pass rush. His pass rush in 2012 was 11.4. And, while he has found his numbers steadily declining the past few years, I find it hard to believe he has dropped off that dramatically over the course of just one season. I believe there’s a way for Peppers to be more effective in the pass rush portion of his game.

He seems to tire more quickly than he used to. (For the record, he is roughly 6 months older than me and I get winded running to first in my slow pitch softball league. We’re on slightly different athletic levels.) Limiting his snaps is the key to getting the most out of him. He lined up on 82% of the Bears defensive snaps last season. While some guys may be able to do that, it’s not a good idea to throw an aging edge-rusher out there that often. When he gets tired, he has a tendency to take plays off. While he’s never been a particularly great run defender, he gets even worse when he starts wearing down. There were quite a few running plays in his direction in which he wasn’t even really trying to fight through blocks. At times it looked like he and the offensive lineman had a gentlemen’s agreement. “I won’t try on this one if you won’t, okay?” This was something that happened predominantly on running plays, but it happened on a handful of passing plays as well. The key to limiting these plays is to keep him fresh.

There’s another big key to make sure Peppers is effective this season. Last season, Peppers lined up as the right defensive end on 84.64% of his snaps, the left defensive end on 9.73% and as defensive tackle on 5.63%. That means that every single one of his defensive snaps last year came with his hand on the ground. That is not the best use of Peppers at this stage of his career. While he can still beat some tackles with his speed and strength, his best weapon these days is his intelligence. His most impactful plays came when he would back out, assess the offensive line, pick his spot and attack.

Take a look at this sequence from the Week 6 game against the Giants.

i2g2a1D1S067tPpMrN-BZrd6HgUlqlSdxnIPQN_VfT8,RRLHxNGu85l0-O2dHuZuX9pd7NiKth5MnPlkwOq5pAA

His initial move to the outside is immediately cut off.

hlEaP6hhrzFe8GiQrYOqGXAUYWM3KN0mPv1nIG1YIZY

Instead of trying a counter move, he pulls back out to take a look at the line.

MGIuv3TpxbyDsZnExF4f5rGbQpB5xOAOKkArLPPZ6PY,t5QO_kqgMynfqV3dKWGbkVsc8fIWBmTyJY4akYfr0Vc

He finds a seam and attacks. While he didn’t get a sack on the play, he did pick up a QB hurry (one of the 40 total pressures he picked up last season). A lot of his best plays from last season looked a lot like this.

Here’s another play along those lines. This one is from the Week 13 game against the Vikings.

PDiV2KfQaB0Pws2Ql3tMWlz8cWQ-N2MbikwvA5FF8gA

Peppers is lined up wide on Matt Kalil.

ajlvvc1H43rSSbsLZvxNo4wf4TbMO9tRH2hlwzrFPYc

Instead of rushing the passer, the call for him is to head to the middle of the line.

BMgMuTHUkZBnyG17FkiBbV8VC_tIYB8VpFdglB6Zc-8

He ends up locked up with John Sullivan. Instead of pushing for the rush, he follows Matt Cassel’s eyes.

VrPW6oGw_vKpeYBOsGxh94oczZIOQoUSmXUu-smyVME

When Cassel releases, Peppers is right there to knock down a pass to a wide-open Adrian Peterson.

As I mentioned above, Peppers is at his best when he can pick his spots and attack. Working with his hand off the ground should make a huge difference in his production this year. Judging by Mike McCarthy’s comments about Peppers playing the Elephant role, I believe he’ll be working like this more often than not.

That’s not to say that he should start every play with his hand off the ground. He still has the speed and moves to make life miserable for opposing tackles. Not on every play, but enough to keep them honest.

Here’s a play from the Week 1 game against the Bengals.

MF1R2-BQgyfOExlMJ-W3k0B4O-MqqD1mNpl5Z58zjgw

Peppers is matched-up on Anthony Collins, a pretty good LT (13.7 for the year). He originally goes for a speed move, but finds himself blocked.

SjIH-J1oXdmJCr50gvMKPq2zRbuALPPW72sUJd9UZEA

Peppers is able to come back inside, get into the body of Collins and push him back.

0fmEQ3Cb6WfZZifNEE6c-8hcg-9t1n3zrpR_H2qGwts

He wasn’t able to get to Andy Dalton on the play, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good move. It’s hard to do a lot of things with an arm across your neck.

The purpose of the Elephant role is to move him around on defense. He looked good in limited snaps at DT. He’s strong enough to hang with the big boys inside, while fast enough to be able to beat them with one move. His swim move against interior linemen can be absolutely devastating.

He also still draws a lot of attention when he lines up as a DE. He gets quite a few double-teams, as well as a number of chips of backs and tight ends going out to their routes. Even if he isn’t making plays on the line, his presence can open up lanes for the linebackers behind him. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him playing on the line from time-to-time as a way to open up lanes for Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and company to shoot through.

Though he is no longer in his prime, Peppers can still make a difference in the game in a number of ways. I’m excited to see how the Packers use him this year. He has a chance to make a big impact for the defense this year in his new role. I have high hopes for Peppers’ first season in the green and gold. Is it September 4 yet?

*****

Albums listened to while watching film: EMA – The Future’s Void; Nothing – Guilty of Everything; The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten; Maximum Balloon – Maximum Balloon; Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady; Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me; Radiohead – The King of Limbs; The Beach Boys – The Smile Sessions; The Dangerous Summer – Golden Record; Lorde – Pure Heroine; Dorothea – Books 1–3; The Wonder Years – The Greatest Generation; Shelby Earl – Swift Arrows; Pink Floyd – The Final Cut; Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe; Buck 65 – 20 Odd Years; Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man; The Fire Theft – The Fire Theft; The Raveonettes – Pe’ahi; Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…; Alvvays – Alvvays; The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico; Got a Girl – I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now; Goodie Mob – Soul Food; Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son; Grouplove – Spreading Rumours; Davia – Hush; Owl John – Owl John; Tape Waves – Let You Go; The Antlers – Familiars; Emma Louise – Vs Head Vs Heart; Angus & Julia Stone – Angus & Julia Stone; The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt; Guardians of the Galaxy Soundtrack.