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Panthers, Julius Peppers will face tough test on Sunday from Vikings' 'gray matter'

The Charlotte Observer — Jourdan Rodrigue The Charlotte Observer

Dec. 07--There are a few certainties in life, and one of them is the tone an opposing head coach's voice takes on during weekly conference calls after being asked about 37-year-old Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers.

Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was no exception Wednesday.

He, like many of the coaches Carolina has squared off against this season, just can't seem to rid himself of the future first-ballot Hall of Fame sack artist.

"Yeah, lucky me," Zimmer sighed sarcastically. "You know, he's an unbelievable athlete, and unbelievable player. I've seen him do so many things. When he played up in Green Bay a few years ago, I saw him intercept a pass and then run it back for a touchdown. He's got such great long arms, and explosion, and power and speed. And really, it doesn't look like he's slowing down any.

"I'm thankful he's not in our division anymore, but unfortunately we have to play him this week and he'll be a tough matchup for us."

In 19 games against Minnesota in his career, Peppers has recorded 14 sacks.

This week, he and the Panthers' defense will face one of the more solid offensive lines on its schedule.

With Case Keenum as quarterback over the past 10 1/2 games, the Vikings offensive line has only allowed nine sacks, and not more than two in a game this year. The Vikings also have allowed the second-least sacks in the NFL this year (14), just ahead of the league-best Los Angeles Chargers.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said the play of Minnesota's line has stayed very consistent, and that has made a huge difference in protection as well as re-vamping a run game that fluctuated through the first eight weeks of the year. The Vikings have rushed for over 100 yards per game in each of their last four games following a Week 9 bye.

"I think it's a good unit, I think they work well together," said Rivera. "They've run the ball successfully. I think the quarterback has a good feel for the guys he's got in front of him."

But the Panthers blitz on about 41 percent of pass plays, which is the second-most frequent in the league. And it has paid its dividends, too. Carolina ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks with 34.

Big collisions are undoubtedly on the way.

But Peppers didn't seem too concerned about Minnesota's offensive line on Wednesday in the Panthers' locker room, at least in regards to evaluating them on tape.

"We stick with what we do, we don't necessarily pay attention to the offensive line," he said. "They're somewhat like a 'gray matter,' they're just ... there.

"We focus on what we do, and that's it. Not to say we're not going watch these guys on film and prepare for them, because we do, and we respect our opponents, but first and foremost we're worried about what we're doing, not necessarily about what they're doing. Because we feel like our fundamentals and technique can take care of anything they try to do."

With defensive end Charles Johnson out for three more games after violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy, Peppers will continue to start at defensive end opposite Mario Addison, as he did Sunday against the Saints.

Addison sacked New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday and hit him three times (the Panthers had two sacks and six hits, total). He also forced six pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, which tied his season high.

In fact, Addison is now tied with Peppers for the team lead in sacks with 8.5.

"He uses his speed. He's very fast, as we all know," said Peppers, who first met Addison when the latter was a rookie undrafted free agent in Chicago. "He uses that to his advantage. And also, he uses the 'rush hands' technique (forcefully swatting the hands and forearms of an offensive lineman away) that we go over every day as part of our fundamental group.

"He's doing all of that well, and he's turned himself into a premiere rusher."

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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