Julius Peppers is known for big plays, such as this Week 1 sack of the Lions’ Matthew Stafford, but his willingness to play within a team concept and enable others to make plays has been eye-opening. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: March 22, 2011 10:10AM
His freakish athleticism was expected. The profound impact that Julius Peppers has had on the Bears’ defense hasn’t been the most surprising aspect of his first year with the team, either.
It’s been his willingness to play team defense — to be a cog in defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s machine — that has impressed those who know the intricacies of his defensive end position.
Peppers might be a rare talent, but he’s no prima donna.
“It’s kind of rare,” Peppers said of being on such a star-studded yet selfless defense. “Most of the time you have guys playing for contracts. It’s part of the game. That’s what some guys do. Some guys play for that. Some guys play for the love of the game and play the right way. I’m happy to be part of a team that does things right and plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
The play Peppers made during a 23-6 win over the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 10 — he batted a pass into the air and made a lunging interception — was what fans expected when the Bears signed him to a $90 million free-agent contract during the offseason. But plays that often go unnoticed also have drawn league-wide applause.
His willingness to forsake personal stats for the good of the whole is a reflection of an attitude that has propelled the Bears to Sunday’s divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks at Soldier Field.
“Julius is an enormous factor on anybody’s team because you just have to pay so much attention to where he is because he can change the game in one play,” said Sea-hawks coach Pete Carroll. “So we have to find ways to keep him from being the factor. They have enough really outstanding players on that football team that they call for us in many areas to really pay attention to them.”
The greatest athletes aren’t always the most disciplined. When the Bears started doing their due diligence on Peppers during the offseason they realized he was the exception, which made him the ideal fit for a defensive coordinator who preaches each individual executing his assignment is more important than a few stars making all the plays.
It helps when three potential Hall of Famers — Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Peppers — not only buy in but set the standard.
“You have to have all 11 guys on the field with the same goal every time,” Peppers said. “If you don’t have that you don’t have anything. When the stars have the attitude that it’s team first and we’re going to do everything we can to make the star of the team the defense everybody falls in line. It’s great playing with those guys. This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time playing football.”
There were questions about Peppers’ work ethic in the past, yet when Bears players and coaches talk about what he has done since arriving at Halas Hall they are sincere. They marvel at the textbook technique he used to contain Michael Vick again and again, allowing his teammates to make the tackles during a 31-26 win over the Eagles in November. They talk about his attention to detail in practice and how he practices his drops with the precision of a linebacker even though he backpedals into coverage only occasionally.
The Bears knew they were getting one of the greatest athletes ever to play the position. They also got a master craftsman in the bargain.
“He’s really precise on everything he does,” rookie defensive end Corey Wootton said. “That’s how you have to be in this league because everybody is good. You have to approach every day like you need to get better. I admire his work ethic because he comes to work every day like he’s a rookie. He’s trying to earn something even though he has already earned his stripes in the league.”
Urlacher said he never knew Peppers was as great a run defender as he is. Briggs said he never expected him to make the players around him as much better as he has.
Peppers doesn’t know what the fuss is about. He says he’s not doing anything that he hasn’t always done.
“It has always been who I am,” he said. “I’ve never been a guy who has tried to draw attention to myself or created a character for himself like some other guys. I’ve never been that type of guy. I’ve always preferred to be a team player and let my play speak for itself. I just want to play my role and lead by example.
“I’m happy to be on a team that has vocal leaders. Not that I can’t do it but I’d rather just play and let everybody see it. We’ve got [Urlacher], the best leader in the league. Everybody looks up to him. I let him do all the talking and just go about my business.”