GREEN BAY, Wis. — The sight of Julius Peppers standing alongside Clay Matthews might take some getting used to, but there they were Thursday during the Packers’ organized team activities under a bright sky with the stands at Ray Nitschke Field about three-quarters full of fans.
The Packers are hopeful the pairing of Peppers, the 34-year-old former Bears defensive end, with Matthews gives opposing offenses all sorts of problems this coming season after their defense finished 26th in yards, tied for 25th in points allowed and 24th vs. the pass in 2013.
What’s interesting is Peppers never really has paired with a dominant complementary pass-rushing force in his career. He always has been the ringleader and now, entering his 13th season, he won’t necessarily be a marked man. In his new surroundings, the Packers would be wise to reduce the playing time of a guy who rarely came off the field for the Bears.
The question is how much he has left?
Peppers’ production dipped to seven sacks last season, most on the Bears, but it wasn’t what the team had come to expect after three consecutive Pro Bowl selections after the blockbuster contract he signed in 2010 to revitalize coach Lovie Smith’s defense.
Peppers wasn’t the only one who struggled. The defense had issues across the board and for more than half the season, he was asked almost to be a one-man gang playing with a collection of bottom of the roster players that included street free agents.
“You’re asking me to go back and recapture emotions,” Peppers said. “That’s part of the game and those things happen. The whole thing was frustrating but that is in the past. I am trying to forget about it actually.
“I felt fine last year. Circumstances around me and the team led to certain things.”
It wasn’t like the 2 1/2-sack season he had for the Panthers in 2007 either, but he’s an older man now and there was some gray mixed throughout his beard as he worked to steer the conversation toward the present and future. He signed a $26 million, three-year contract, but it effectively can be an $8.5 million deal for just this season.
“We’ll see how long I have left and how long I feel like playing,” he said. “Right now, I feel like playing as long as I can.”
The Packers plan to use Peppers as a hybrid defensive end and outside linebacker. He mostly lined up on the left side in a two-point stance rushing the quarterback during practice Thursday. Matthews, still sidelined after two thumb surgeries, will play on the other side.
“He looks awesome in (jersey No.) 56,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I was worried we were not going to be able to find a shirt that would fit him. He looks very natural at outside linebacker.”
Said defensive coordinator Dom Capers: “He brings versatility. He’s obviously a talented athlete. He’ll be used in a lot of different ways.”
There has been a lot of talk about the Packers using Peppers in coverage, jamming tight ends at the line of scrimmage and dropping in short zones, but the reality is he was signed to get after the quarterback and that is what is intriguing for Capers with an experienced pro.
“I haven’t really played with a guy like Clay, really my whole career,” Peppers said. “Early in my career I played with a guy, Mike Rucker, who was a threat on the other side. But like a really dominant player on the outside, I really haven’t had that ever. I’m excited to get out there with him and see what he can do.”
Matthews, who has 50 sacks over the last five seasons, also is intrigued. He should be on the field by the time training camp comes around.
“It’s going to present some difficulties for the offense to not only block the two of us but other guys who have stepped up in recent history — Mike Daniels, Mike Neal coming on strong,” Matthews said. “I was a little shocked (the Packers signed Peppers). We don’t make too many offseason acquisitions, especially, you know, such a big name. But I’m happy to have him on this side of the ball.”
The Bears terminated Peppers’ contract March 11 with two years remaining on it. The move came the same day the team agreed to terms with Lamarr Houston on a $35 million, five-year contract. Later, general manager Phil Emery added another veteran pass rusher when he signed Jared Allen.
Peppers had become a salary cap casualty as two restructures to carve out room had ballooned his 2014 cap hit to more than $18 million, making it one of the highest in the NFL.
In essence, Peppers sealed his own fate by being a team-first player and restructuring. They were not pay cuts, but bookkeeping exercises that created more cap space while making him difficult to retain for the long haul. That much he would discuss.
“That was my choice,” Peppers said. “I was just doing what I thought was the right thing.”
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