After a mostly invisible preseason debut in rain-drenched Tennessee, Julius Peppers rebounded against the St. Louis Rams Saturday to look more like the active, disruptive edge player the Green Bay Packers need this season.
The 34-year-old Peppers played into the second quarter, seeing 22 snaps over two series with the rest of the first-team defense. While his 10 soggy snaps against the Titans in monsoon-like conditions a week ago were underwhelming, Peppers gave the Packers defense seven positive plays and at least two pass disruptions in St. Louis, based off my own film study of the contest.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Peppers at plus-1.8, good for the fourth-best grade on the Green Bay defense against the Rams. He was credited with one quarterback hit and one "stop," which PFF considers a tackle constituting an offensive failure.
|Julius Peppers, 2014 Preseason According to PFF|
|Snaps||QB Disruptions||Stops||PFF Grade|
|Week 1 at TEN||10||0||0||-2.3|
|Week 2 at STL||22||1||1||+1.8|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Peppers' performance was clearly a step above his debut in Tennessee, which drew criticism after Ted Thompson's prized free-agent pickup hardly influenced the contest.
“We’ll see about that, we'll see about that,” Peppers told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, when asked a week ago if he can still impact games at age 34. “I’m not really going to get into too much discussing what I can and can’t do. I’m going to let the film speak for it.”
The film from St. Louis spoke in much kinder terms for Peppers.
On Green Bay's third defensive snap, Peppers looked quick and agile as he blew past the Rams' right tackle to the inside.
Had this play not been a designed three-step drop and quick throw from Sam Bradford, Peppers would have likely caused a significant collision at the quarterback. He came off the blind side clean, and there was no running back assigned to provide a double-team on the edge. Instead of the play resulting in a sack, however, Peppers' effort counted for nothing, as Bradford quickly found Tavon Austin underneath for 14 yards.
A play later, Peppers played the backside of a cutback run and cleaned up the running back for a two-yard loss. Penetration from the entirety of the Packers defensive line forced a play that began to the right to come back to the left, and Peppers was waiting.
Later on the drive, Green Bay received more penetration against the run, and Peppers shed his block on the backside to help stop the play for another loss.
The Packers then got off the field in part due to Peppers' pressure against the pass.
On 1st-and-25, Peppers hand-fought the right tackle, pushing his man into the pocket and forcing Bradford to backpedal and throw quick underneath. Clay Matthews was also in pursuit after spinning free from the left tackle. With both Peppers and Matthews bearing down, Bradford had no choice but to get rid of the football.
After the Rams combo-blocked him on second down, Peppers created enough initial pressure on 3rd-and-21 to force Bradford to unload a designed screen before he wanted to. The attempt bounced off the turf, and the Rams sent in the the punting unit.
The play the Packers will like the most came on the third play of the defense's second series.
On 2nd-and-7, Peppers beat rookie Greg Robinson—the second overall pick in the 2014 draft—with speed and flexibility off the edge.
Quick off the snap after lining up with his hand on the ground, Peppers immediately gets to the outside shoulder of Robinson. He keeps him there by chopping his hands through the rookie's. At this point, offensive tackles can regain the upper hand by forcing an advancing pass-rusher up the field and away from the quarterback. But Peppers—suddenly looking like a 28-year-old in his prime—bends around the corner like all elite pass-rushers can, meeting Bradford in the pocket. He makes contact right as Bradford is attempting to throw, and the wobbly attempt is then nearly intercepted by A.J. Hawk in the middle of the field.
These are the kind of plays the Packers envisioned when Thompson gave Peppers a three-year deal worth up to $30 million, including a $7.5 million signing bonus, back in March.
The rest of Peppers' appearance was mostly quiet, although he did set the edge against one run. And on Bradford's touchdown pass to Lance Kendricks, Peppers fired off the ball and nearly split a double-team to pressure the quarterback.
He certainly wasn't great on every snap.
The Rams caught him up the field on one inside run on the first drive. He had a similar mistake against the Titans, which helped cause Shonn Greene's touchdown run. On the same series, St. Louis successfully blocked him one-on-one on both 3rd-and-long and the ensuing fourth down conversion.
A drive later, the Rams had little problem staying in front of him on the first play. Peppers also lost contain on a pass rush when he spun inside down in the red zone, but Bradford couldn't deliver after beginning his rollout to the right.
These are mostly minor mistakes, but they play into the performance as a whole.
Essentially, Peppers was exactly who he has been for the majority of his career: a dominant, game-changing player on a handful of snaps and an afterthought on others. The Packers can handle that assessment, because they need someone who can deliver the occasional impact play opposite Matthews.
Like Saturday, the positive sum of his impact plays should, in theory, outweigh the negatives of his other empty snaps.
His second appearance also gave a quick glimpse of how the Packers might use Peppers. While only so much should be taken away from preseason games, when coordinators like Dom Capers don't show their full hand, Peppers lined up on the right side for 11 snaps and on the left for the other 11, flip-flopping with Matthews frequently. He did not play defensive tackle in the nickel or dime looks, but he did put his hand on the ground for six snaps, all coming on the second series.
Peppers also dropped into coverage once, on the second play of the first drive. He was not targeted.
Capers and the Packers will likely get more creative with him when the regular season begins Sept. 4 in Seattle.
"Eventually we're going to have real games for everybody to talk about," Peppers told Dunne.
For now, a sprightly, more disruptive showing against the Rams has helped Peppers turn a critical conversation of his remaining abilities into a hopeful one.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.