CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Julius Peppers spent his first five years in the NFL earning a reputation as the one of the game's most fearsome defensive ends.
A freakish athlete, Peppers not only piled up sacks, he returned interceptions for touchdowns, blocked field goals and even occasionally lined up as a receiver.
Through nine games this season, the Carolina Panthers' three-time Pro Bowl pick has been virtually invisible. He has just 1 1/2 sacks and nine quarterback pressures. His 38 tackles rank seventh on the team and the lack of pressure from the defensive line is one of the reasons the Panthers are 4-5.
The ``What's wrong with Pep'' talk has swirled for weeks. There was speculation an illness he had in the preseason had lingered. Or maybe he was injured. Perhaps he was upset after owner Jerry Richardson challenged him to become a leader.
``No injury. No sickness. I don't understand where you're all getting that from,'' Peppers said Wednesday in a rare meeting with reporters. ``Sometimes things don't happen the way you want them to.''
Peppers' 1 1/2 sacks came in the same game, in Week 6 at Arizona when he also had two forced fumbles as he took advantage of being blocked by Cardinals backup right tackle Elton Brown.
The rest of the season has produced little: one tackle each against Atlanta and Indianapolis, three tackles against Tampa Bay, two quarterback hurries against Tennessee, and two tackles and a hurry last Sunday in the second meeting with the Falcons.
``I feel like I can play better,'' Peppers said. ``Am I playing as bad as people make it seem? No. But am I playing as good as I have in the past? No.''
But when you're the former No. 2 overall pick in the draft and perhaps in line for a contract worth more than Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney's six-year, $72 million deal, there are certain expectations.
Peppers isn't close to reaching them. He's had seasons of 12, 11, 10 1/2 and 13 sacks. He's on a pace now for less than three, and the Panthers' nine sacks are tied for the fewest in the league.
``Even Superman has a bad day,'' Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said. ``I've had bad games. I've had bad days. I've had bad streaks. You can't sit and look at him and say, 'You're less of a player.' I still think Pep is a phenomenal athlete and I still think any day it can click.''
Peppers isn't sure what he has to do. He acknowledged teams aren't double-teaming him as much anymore, yet he's having a more difficult time getting to the quarterback.
``I find a lot of guys now bailing out. That means jumping back 5 yards from the line and taking the edge away,'' Peppers said. ``That is something I am seeing a lot more, not giving the inside up but trying to force me to go inside and not around the edge. Once you go inside, there's more traffic to get through.''
Peppers said he's noticed some problems with his technique while watching film. But he's not going to make major changes to his style.
``I'm not going to go out and change how I've been playing for years just because I'm struggling now,'' Peppers said. ``I will stick with what I know and hopefully that will work.''
Peppers' season started with a jolt from the owner. At safety Mike Minter's retirement news conference in training camp, Richardson urged Peppers to become the leader of the defense. A few weeks later, his teammates voted him a defensive team captain.
The new roles haven't carried over to the field.
``I can take the criticism and I can take the heat. That's the position I'm in,'' Peppers said. ``I'm not going to run away from it. But there's no excuses for my play or for this team's play. But we still have games left to get this thing corrected. Hopefully that is what we're going to come out and do.''
With the Panthers having used four quarterbacks and ranking 28th in total offense, there is increased pressure on the defense to keep the score down to give them a chance to win. To do that, Carolina needs more production from Peppers.
``Once it changes, everybody will be back on the bandwagon again and kissing his butt,'' Jenkins said. ``I just tell him as a teammate that he has to play through it. He'll be all right.''
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