Friday, January 30, 2004

Peppers popping QBs for Carolina

The Associated Press

HOUSTON - Mike Rucker and Brentson Buckner would make great directors of the Julius Peppers highlight film. His fellow defensive linemen on the Carolina Panthers already have some clips picked out.

Rucker's favorite came in the preseason, when Peppers leaped to block a pass, was hit around his knees, flipped and still managed to land on his feet.

The one Buckner remembers best was "seeing how quickly he goes from zero to 60" after Peppers returned an interception 34 yards against Dallas in the playoffs.

They're both good picks. But Peppers' specialty is rushing the quarterback.

His versatility is typical of what makes Carolina's defensive line so tough. Any offensive line that concentrates on trying to stop Peppers is risking Rucker getting to the quarterback from the other side, or letting Buckner or Kris Jenkins come up the middle.

"Stopping their front four is the key to being successful against Carolina, and it's probably the toughest thing to accomplish," said New England left tackle Matt Light, who will mostly face Rucker in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

"All those guys are very good athletes, very talented and had a lot of success this year. It's going to take a great effort to beat them."

Rucker led the team with 12 sacks. Peppers had seven, although he pressured quarterbacks another 32 times, 12 more than Rucker. Jenkins had five sacks, as did reserve end Al Wallace.

Still, the unquestioned attention-getter is Peppers.

After playing football and basketball at North Carolina, he was the second overall pick of the 2002 draft. He had 12 sacks in his first 12 games for the Panthers, then was suspended from the last four for taking a banned dietary supplement. He was named the NFL's defensive rookie of the year anyway.

Although his numbers were down this season, Peppers thinks he's playing better, especially against the run. And he still makes plays others can't even fathom.

Rucker said there are times when he's barely out of his stance and Peppers is going into his third step.

"He definitely does some crazy things with his body," he said. "You would think you'd tear a muscle doing the things he can do."

The craziest was the flip.

"It looked like he was going to land on his neck, but he landed on both feet," Rucker said. "We rewound that probably 10, 15 times because we didn't understand how he did that. He's just so flexible, such an athlete, that it wasn't really a big problem. He just started laughing."

Peppers laughed again when asked about it Thursday. That's easier than trying to explain how he did it.

"What I do is just freestyle," he said, comparing his on-the-fly technique to a basketball player who comes up with a fancy dunk after leaving the ground.

"When that ball is snapped and I'm running at the passer, I don't have a clue what I'm going to do. I'm just reading him and going off whatever he does."

New England quarterback Tom Brady better look out Sunday - the cameras will be rolling.

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