How Packers Can Get the Most out of Julius Peppers in New Position

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How Packers Can Get the Most out of Julius Peppers in New Position
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

The Green Bay Packers gave Julius Peppers $30 million over three years this past March to provide defensive coordinator Dom Capers with a versatile chess piece in the Packers defensive front seven. 

Now, it's on Capers and the Packers defensive staff to put their biggest free-agent investment since Charles Woodson in the best position to produce. 

Peppers is an unusual big-money free agent. For one, he's 34 years old and entering the twilight of his career. But maybe more importantly, Peppers is changing positions and defensive schemes for the first time. 

A traditional 4-3 defensive end for both the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears, Peppers will now play a hybrid position for Capers and the Packers. 

Head coach Mike McCarthy has described Peppers' role as "multiple" in Green Bay's 3-4 defense.  

"'Elephant' is a term used for a multiple-position player along the defensive front," McCarthy said back in late March, via Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Julius will be part of that group." 

The Packers have a plan in place for best utilizing Peppers and his unique skill set and situation. Below, we run down the most important aspects of Green Bay's blueprint for maximizing the return on their free-agent acquisition.

 

Keep Offenses Guessing

The Packers want to play Peppers in a variety of roles, which should benefit both parties in a pair of ways. For starters, a little re-imagination in his role could revitalize a motor that ran hot and cold last season. And second, variation will keep offenses from knowing where he'll be on any given snap. 

Last season, Peppers played right defensive end almost exclusively. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 401 of his 442 pass-rushing snaps came from right end in 2013. Five years ago, Peppers could play one primary position and still dominate the game like many of the NFL's best pass-rushers do. Now, he could use a little unpredictability about where he'll be. 

The Packers have many options. 

Peppers should be primarily an outside linebacker in the 3-4, which will mean standing up and rushing off the edge or dropping into coverage. But he can also play at defensive end in Green Bay's base defense, and also as an interior rusher when the Packers go to base defense. 

Playing nickel and dime packages is something Capers and the Packers do as much as any defense in football. In those sets, Peppers can rush from just about anywhere in the front seven. 

One of McCarthy's priorities this offseason was becoming more multiple on defense, while also cutting down on the volume inside those various schemes. Peppers helps do both. 

"Defensively, we want to do more things with different personnel groups," McCarthy said. "We want to be more personnel groups, less volume schematically."

Among the many personnel groupings could be the return of the "Psycho" package, which Capers brought to Green Bay in 2009. In the "Psycho" look, the Packers employ a single down lineman, five pass-rushing linebackers and five defensive backs. It was once used to great effect in Green Bay, but the defense has simply lacked the personnel to bring it back in recent seasons. 

NFL Game Rewind

Peppers may help change that.

Imagine a "Psycho" set in 2014 that includes Mike Daniels (6.5 sacks last season) or Datone Jones as the down lineman and Peppers, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, A.J. Hawk and Mike Neal, Brad Jones or Carl Bradford as the linebackers. The Packers could cause confusion in the pre-snap process and overload gaps with stunts and delayed blitzes from the unique combination of pass-rushers. 

But even in more traditional packages, Capers can mix and match by placing Peppers and Matthews on the same side of the defensive formation (either as standup rushers or with Peppers along the line), or by sliding Peppers inside to combine with Daniels or Jones on the interior. Either scenario would stress an offensive line with two very good pass-rushers in the same general area. 

Combining Peppers with another havoc-causer should lessen the amount of attention he receives.

Without any semblance of help last season, Peppers became the focal point for offenses against the Chicago defense. That can't happen in Green Bay. Getting him in favorable situations is a must. 

Peppers can still win one-on-ones. This sack against the Minnesota Vikings last season is especially relevant: 

NFL Game Rewind

The Bears lined Peppers inside, with Shea McClellin (think Matthews) on his outside shoulder. The Vikings give Peppers a one-on-one with the guard, while Chicago's other interior rusher (think Daniels) is double-teamed. Peppers overpowers his matchup and sacks the quarterback with relative ease. 

The Packers can scheme in similar scenarios. Role versatility and personnel groupings may just be the deception Peppers needs to jump-start his pass-rushing production at age 34. 

 

Protect Against the Run

Make no mistake about it, the Packers brought Peppers to Green Bay to rush the quarterback. But pass-rushing is only one part of the defensive equation, and the Packers will need to be smart about how Peppers is used against the run. 

A year ago, Peppers was up and down in run defense for a unit that was carved up week in and week out. He wasn't the main part of Chicago's problem, but he wasn't any part of the answer, either. 

Julius Peppers' Decline Against the Run
PFF Grade vs. Run 4-3 DE Rank
2010 +16.0 2nd
2011 +3.0 27th
2012 +0.2 40th
2013 -2.7 44th

Source: Pro Football Focus

It will be interesting to see how Peppers is asked to attack the run. As an outside linebacker, he'll need to anchor at times on the edge—regardless of if he's playing on the right or left side. It's simply something every 3-4 outside linebacker needs to do, and no one can be sure of Peppers' effectiveness in a new role.

But the Packers will also want Peppers on the back side of most plays, if possible. Maybe his greatest strength against the run is moving vertically down the line and pursuing plays off the back side. His athleticism and length allows him to close down space and eliminate cutback lanes. 

It's certainly possible the Packers take Peppers off the field on some run downs. Perry, when healthy, has been an effective anchor on the strong side opposite Matthews. He's younger and more stout at the point. 

Peppers' biggest contribution to the Packers defense will be in attacking the quarterback. Unless a move to outside linebacker revitalizes his production against the run, Green Bay will need to protect Peppers some on run downs. 

 

Keep His Legs Fresh

Given his contract, Peppers isn't going to be a part-time player for the Packers in 2014. Green Bay paid him to be on the field. But an important aspect of getting the most out of Peppers next season will be monitoring his snaps. 

He hasn't missed a game since 2007, which is a testament to his incredible reliability. However, with those games every Sunday have come snaps, and the mileage has started to add up. 

Julius Peppers: Seasonal Snap Count, 2010-2013
Total Snaps 4-3 DE Rank PFF Grade
2010 944 4th +33.9
2011 918 10th +21.7
2012 797 23rd +9.9
2013 865 13th -4.3
Totals 3,649 5th +61.2

Source: Pro Football Focus

Since 2010, Peppers has played 3,649 snaps, or roughly 912 per season. Only 12 4-3 defensive ends played more snaps than him last season, and of the 12 that did, only Jared Allen and Justin Tuck were over the age of 30. Overall, he played on almost 85 percent of Chicago's defensive snaps. 

Peppers is now 34, and despite his rare athleticism, the decline is coming. As the saying goes, Father Time remains undefeated. One way to delay the inevitable regression is reducing the wear and tear that goes along with playing a high percentage of snaps.

If the Packers are eyeing a deep run into January next season, they'll need Peppers at his best late in the year. That may mean sacrificing snaps along the way. It would be difficult to envision Peppers playing over 900 snaps and still having enough in the tank come the postseason. Capers and McCarthy will have to balance out the percentages to ensure Peppers is fresh when he's really needed.

USA TODAY Sports

In the 34-year-old Peppers, the Packers have a unique and valuable asset on the roster. Getting the most out of their asset will require creativity and a commitment to the plan currently being constructed. Success in maximizing Peppers' production could finally bring the Packers defense back to title form.  

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

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