CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Julius Peppers' teammates predicted this would be the season he'd challenge the NFL's sacks record. If he's going to do it, Peppers better get moving.
Through three games this season, Carolina's All-Pro defensive end is stuck on zero. Although he's credited with six pressures, Peppers has yet to finish off a quarterback.
And that lack of sacks is what many outsiders are blaming for the Panthers' 1-2 start this season.
Peppers doesn't care.
"Nobody expects more out of me than me, so it doesn't bother me at all to hear people complain that 'He's not making plays' or 'He's not getting sacks,' " Peppers said Wednesday. "I want to do those things. I just take it as I'm just waiting because it's going to happen.
"You can't rush it. You don't rush great things."
This was the year the Panthers thought Peppers would truly be great. With 30 sacks through his first three seasons, everyone expected him to raise his game to the next level.
He was coming off last year's breakthrough season, when the rest of the league got to see just how athletic he is. Fighting through double- and triple-teams, Peppers set an NFL record for interception yards by a defensive linemen (143) and had the most return yards (203) by a lineman since 1970.
He finished the season with 11 sacks and his first invitation to the Pro Bowl.
But when pressed for his season sacks goal, Peppers shied away from setting a number. When he finally spit one out, he said he would settle for 10.
His teammates scoffed, all but guaranteeing that Peppers would make a run at Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22½ sacks.
"Ten is a good number, but he'll beat that. He's being modest. I'm not," safety Mike Minter said. "I know what he can do, and I've seen what he can do, and I've seen what those types of players like him can do. He's going to eat that sack record up."
So what's wrong with Peppers this season?
Nothing, if you ask his teammates.
"You can't get stuck on one category, on just sacks," said defensive end Mike Rucker. "Would you rather him go in there and get a sack for a 7-yard loss, or would you rather him get in there with some pressure and force the guy to throw an interception? I think you'll go for the pick.
"You can't get caught up in how many sacks does a guy have because it doesn't tell the whole story. Pep is off to a fine start and the sacks will come."
Peppers' big plays have been streaky before, and when they come, they often come in bunches.
He had two sacks in Week 2 last season, then failed to get another one the next five games. Then he had two a game for the next three weeks.
Plus, the Panthers ask him to do a lot more than simply rack up sacks.
Relied on to pressure the quarterback, Peppers is also a key cog in Carolina's run defense. With Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins out for a second straight season with injury, that job is a lot more difficult.
When Jenkins isn't on the field, opponents have extra bodies to use on neutralizing Peppers. In theory, the extra attention should free up Rucker to put up big numbers, but he's got just one sack so far this season and it's the only one credited to Carolina's line.
"Rome wasn't built in a day," Rucker said when asked about the line's lack of sacks.
Peppers will always downplay the importance of that category, and argues that fans who don't truly understand the game are the only ones who track sacks.
"People think they really know, but they really don't have a clue what they're talking about," Peppers said. "I could really care less about who's complaining about me not having sacks."
Peppers also has a message for those who expect him to be a constant highlight reel. It's expected from him now because he had at least three last season, including a 97-yard interception return against Denver and another against Tampa Bay he returned 46 yards for a touchdown.
He also snatched Michael Vick's fumble out of the air with one hand, then raced 60 yards for a touchdown against Atlanta.
But Peppers thinks its impossible to expect those types of plays from him every week.
"It's a long season and I'm not going to have a Top 10 ESPN SportsCenter moment every game," he said. "It's about being patient and being ready so when the opportunity does come, you can be ready to make a play."
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