Hint: It’s been a big one.
After finishing second in the league with nine turnover plays (forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, interceptions) during the regular season, Peppers added two forced fumbles in Sunday’s victory over Dallas. Without Peppers, the Packers might not be getting ready to play Seattle in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
“Julius Peppers is the impact that we were definitely looking for,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday.
That impact has come on the field with his 17-game total of six forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions and eight sacks. It’s also come in the locker room as a quiet and respected leader.
“Statistically speaking, I’m not sure (of my impact),” Peppers said on Wednesday. “I think more of a leadership impact in the locker room and leadership-wise has been bigger. Just trying to help where I can with the young guys. My play on the field has been decent, as well, but more so off the field trying to help in a leadership aspect.”
Peppers is quiet by nature but wasn’t content to just sit in the background and lead by example. Whether it’s through one-on-one interactions with teammates or pregame speeches or encouraging teammates to step forward as leaders, Peppers has proven himself a perfect fit in Green Bay’s carefully crafted locker room.
“I didn’t know him on a personal level (before the signing),” McCarthy said. “I had an opportunity to coach him and be around him in two Pro Bowls. He was obviously a very private and reserved person, but just watching him be a part of our team, just really from Day 1 until now, it’s night and day. He’s been an outstanding leader for our football team. His style is unique. Couldn’t have more credibility for what he’s accomplished and he’s definitely made a big impact for us.”
Added receiver Jordy Nelson: “I think he has been a quiet leader. Obviously, I don’t think he talks much to you guys and he doesn’t stand up in front of the room and talk a lot, but a lot of guys have fed off of his experience, off of his knowledge of the game. I think as the year has gone on, he has become more comfortable with us and speaking more with the defense and understanding that guys are leaning on him to be that leader and looking up to him. I think that has been great and he has just been a steady force on the defense in what he has been able to do.”
The leadership is great but the Packers handed him a three-year, $26 million contract to elevate a defense that had too many big-game failures in recent seasons. And that’s exactly what Peppers has delivered. After looking lost at times early in his transition to outside linebacker, Peppers has settled into his new surroundings.
“A big difference, man,” cornerback Sam Shields said. “A guy like that, I’m happy with a guy like that on my team with us. He’s still got it – the rush, the speed, getting the turnovers from the quarterback, things like that. That’s what we need. He’s been a helluva guy for us throughout the season.”
He’s a player who’s very much on Seattle’s radar. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been sacked 42 times this season — sixth-most in the league.
“You’ve got to know where he is,” Wilson told reporters in Seattle on Wednesday. “You got a guy that's played a lot of great football, been one of the best ever to do it, Hall of Fame-type player over there on the right-hand side for the most part. Julius Peppers, he can do a lot of things. He knows how to get to the quarterback and knows how to make plays and you have to be aware of it.”
One reason why Peppers signed with Green Bay was to get another crack at a championship. That the Packers are one of the league’s final four teams is confirmation that he made the right move.
“It’s worked out so far. The rest is to be determined,” he said.
Part of the story will be told in Sunday’s NFC title game. Peppers, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2002 draft, has been close before. In 2003, the Panthers lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. In 2005, the Panthers lost at Seattle in the NFC Championship. In 2010, Peppers signed with the Bears and helped them to the NFC title game, where they lost to Green Bay.
That’s three close calls. With his 35th birthday on Sunday, Peppers knows there’s no guarantee that he’ll get another shot on this stage.
“In this game, you only get a few opportunities,” he said. “When you get to the big games, you never know when you’re going to be back. So you’ve got to try as best as you can to take advantage of those opportunities. All of those were close calls. I always thought I was going to be back the following year, and that never happened. It makes you realize that you’ve got to take advantage of the moment when you have it.”
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