FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Safety Jabrill Peppers made back-to-back open-field tackles in the New England Patriots’ 17-14 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. The team might be relying on him to make even more this Sunday against the visiting Baltimore Ravens (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
Peppers was thrust into extended action last week when safety Kyle Dugger was sidelined with a knee injury late in the second quarter and immediately made his presence felt at a key point in the game with decisive takedowns.
Dugger hasn’t participated in full practices the past two days, which means coach Bill Belichick has to brace for the possibility he won’t be available as part of the plan Sunday against star quarterback Lamar Jackson & Co.
So, time for more than just a dash of Peppers?
“He’s developing a role and style in our defense. We’ll see how it all plays out,” Belichick said, when asked how he’d characterize Peppers’ style of play. “He’s smart, tough, aggressive. He wants to be involved.”
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Peppers has played 35 of a possible 119 defensive snaps through two games. His crunching tackles of receiver Diontae Johnson and running back Jaylen Warren on successive plays last week provided a preview of what he can bring to a defense that often relies on playing three safeties at the same time.
“That felt good, run around a little bit, make some plays,” Peppers said Wednesday after practice. “I feel pretty good. I’ve still got a little ways to go, but on the right track.”
Peppers ruptured his right ACL in October, in addition to sustaining a high ankle sprain, which affected his transition to the Patriots after signing a one-year free-agent contract in March that could be worth up to $5 million.
He has been heavily involved on special teams — playing on the punt coverage, kickoff coverage, punt return and kickoff return units — but it’s clear the Patriots (1-1) are still exercising a level of caution, as he has been slotted behind Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Dugger at safety.
“Coming back from the knee injury, he was just a little behind those guys, getting on to the field,” defensive playcaller Steve Belichick said. “He’s integrated really well with those guys. I think those guys help him with their experience and helping him get to the right spots.
“It’s hard to not notice his energy, his excitement, his love for football, how passionate he is out there on the field. I think it’s only going to get better going forward if he stays on the trajectory he’s on.”
Steve Belichick added that Peppers is “Jersey tough.”
Meanwhile, Peppers said he wants to be a “chess piece” that Belichick & Co. can move around depending on the game plan each week.
“I feel like I’m a pretty well-rounded football player,” Peppers said. “My early career, I had to work through some bumps. I was so used to playing close to the line [in college for Michigan], and my first year in the league [with the Cleveland Browns] I’m way off the ball, so I had to learn how to play in that much space against these types of athletes.
“I think it helped me overall. Now I feel like I can play deep safety. Play in the box. Play the nickel. Play linebacker. I’m not afraid to set the edge, take on linemen, fullback-type body.”
One area Peppers might still have to earn Bill Belichick’s confidence — especially against a team with big-play capability like the Ravens (1-1) — is if he’s called upon to be the last line of defense.
“As a defensive back, you have to have a certain degree of patience and decision-making. There’s usually nobody behind you,” Belichick explained. “But he’s a good player. I’m glad we have him. He has some versatility, has really helped us in the kicking game, and I think he’ll help us defensively.”
In his sixth NFL season after entering the NFL as a first-round draft pick of the Browns in 2017, Peppers sees more room for growth.
“I think there’s definitely more to do. I don’t think I’ve played my best ball yet,” he said. “That’s the nature of the league sometimes; you just have to keep pushing, and when your number is called, you have to go out there and make as many plays as you can.
“I still think my best football is ahead of me. I’m only 26 years old. Not that old yet. Just have to stay healthy and do whatever the team needs me to do.”