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Julius Peppers' 'different' role for Green Bay Packers may look familiar to NFL fans

Julius Peppers' new role with the Packers could nicely fit the 34-year-old's skill set.Julius Peppers' new role with the Packers could nicely fit the 34-year-old's skill set. (Paul Spinelli/AP)

Is Julius Peppers about to become an elephant?

Peppers, via Packers.com, promised "something different" in terms of his role within the Green Bay Packers' defensive scheme. He may have been referring to a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker role that several teams utilize, most popularly Seattle, and that Packers head coach Mike McCarthy told ESPN.com at the combine could be a spot for an underachieving Nick Perry.

The difference between Pete Carroll's "Leo" position and the "elephant" role? Uh ... not much.

"Elephant’ was just an e-word to designate a guy as being different from the regular defensive end," Carroll explained to Seahawks.com of the position's origin. "We adopted their term and made him an 'L' instead of an 'E'."

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Those origins began in earnest with the San Francisco 49ers under George Seifert, for whom Carroll served as the defensive coordinator in 1994-95. Seifert utilized the "elephant" role to take advantage of future Hall of Fame candidate Charles Haley, an absolute terror off the edge at 6-foot-5 and around 255 pounds. Haley later went on to dominate as a more traditional defensive end for the Cowboys, though his defensive responsibilities there did not vary much from what Seifert asked of him.

The images below are of the 49ers' defensive line setup from a 1990 game against the Giants. Haley (boxed) has his hand in the dirt and is stationed across from one of the Giants' two tight ends on this play. San Francisco then also has linemen at the 0-gap (over the center), 1-gap (between the center and guard) and 5-gap (between the tackle and tight end) spots, with a linebacker to the left.

Haley

Another look from that same game shows Haley in a two-point stance. If the photo above more closely resembled a 4-3, the one below shows off the 3-4 scheme -- Haley on the weakside (opposite the single TE) with a nose tackle and defensive tackle inside and a defensive end on the strong side.

Haley 2

This should all look pretty familiar if you have watched any of Carroll's teams play since he left San Francisco. The Seahawks frequently use the same approach, with the "Leo" on the weakside, the defensive end on the strongside and an extra linebacker walked up to the line next to the DE.

Seattle's Michael Bennett -- a 4-3 defensive end before arriving in Seattle -- is in the Leo spot for our next play (where Peppers will be in theory) at the far right of the frame. LB Bruce Irvin (No. 51) is on the far end of the line from him. Seattle then lines up its three D-linemen in the 1-gap, 3-gap (between the guard and tackle) and 5-gap lanes.

Seahawks 1

What does this all mean for Peppers and the Packers? Well, if Green Bay does move forward with the use of the elephant spot, it basically means Peppers' role will not be all that different from what it was in Chicago ... and that the Packers' defense will be a close marriage of the 3-4 and 4-3.

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The Bears' 4-3, which featured Peppers at the right defensive end spot for the past four seasons, was about as straightforward as they come, mostly operating on one-gap principles that allowed Peppers to accelerate upfield. Aside from sliding the interior linemen from the weak to strong sides, this is more or less what the Bears showed the majority of the time (Peppers is boxed):

Peppers

Under a 3-4 scheme with an elephant/Leo position, essentially what would happen, in relation to the above photo, is that Peppers would flip sides to free him up from the tight end. The two interior linemen would then shift over, while the DE (far right in the picture) would jump to the strong side.

For the Packers, that would leave Peppers as the edge player on the weakside with Clay Matthews holding down the corner on the strongside. Such a scheme would make Peppers as an important cog against the run but, more importantly, would give him a clear shot to collapse the pocket on passing downs.

Quite frankly, adjusting Peppers' game and asking him to handle more than one-gap responsibilities could be a mistake, particularly at this stage of his career. Case in point: This play from last season vs. Cleveland, where the Bears lined up Peppers in his usual DE spot ...

Peppers 2

... then had him stunt inside as Jason Campbell dropped to throw. Peppers found himself boxed out by multiple Cleveland linemen, utterly negating his potency off the edge.

Peppers 3

No one is going to mistake Peppers for an upper-echelon run defender at this point. He has proven in the past, however, to be adept in that area, and he still has the strength and athleticism to be a factor there when he wants to be. (That's perhaps the most pressing issue here: Peppers' motor. He appeared to be running low last season.)

Even there, the "elephant" position could serve him well if the Packers opt to use him as more than a situational pass-rusher. Another snap from that 2013 Chicago game in Cleveland flashes a little chase-and-tackle run defense from Peppers, who was on the weak side and had the play head away from him:

Again, under the 49ers' Seifert-led scheme and now the plans in place for Carroll's Seahawks and Gus Bradley's Jaguars, the benefit of the elephant/Leo is that (when possible) the player operates off the weak side. So, if that is indeed the role Peppers is headed for, he will not be asked to anchor against the run as a 3-4 DE would be, nor will he have to navigate through the weeds inside the tackle box.

All this would be "something different" for the Packers and certainly for Peppers. But the elephant spot is rooted in more than 20 years of usage within the NFL, and it has worked in the past for players with similar skill sets.

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