CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Training camp was only three days old when Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross proclaimed that teammate Julius Peppers would have his best year, adding, "There's no reason he won't go out and set records."
Other teammates marveled at Peppers' quickness and strength. The defensive end dominated in brief stretches in preseason games and seemed poised to quickly erase memories of his dismal 2 1/2-sack season in 2007 that snapped a streak of three straight Pro Bowl appearances.
Through six games of the regular season, Peppers has surpassed last year's sack total with three. But Peppers is nowhere near on pace to break records in a critical year with his contract up at the end of the season.
"It's going OK," Peppers said Wednesday, when asked to evaluate his play. "As far as me playing within the scheme of the defense and handling what I'm supposed to do, it's going good so far, I think."
Not good enough for the myriad of fans who call into talk radio and post on message boards about Peppers' lack of productivity. Charting Peppers' plays has become a cottage industry, with claims he faces fewer double teams and sometimes quits before the play is over.
Reviewing the television coverage of Sunday's 27-3 loss Tampa Bay found that Peppers was single-blocked by left tackle Donald Penn most of the game. Peppers even faced tight end John Gilmore in single coverage on several occasions. He was double-teamed only a handful of times.
Yet Peppers didn't record a sack. Four of his five tackles came in the final 12 minutes, after the Panthers had fallen behind by 24. He was credited with two quarterback hurries, but the second couldn't stop Jeff Garcia from throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to Alex Smith to make it 14-0.
"Our body of work is not done yet," coach John Fox said, when asked if Peppers was playing better than last year. "He's played very well for us, good enough for us to be 4-2. I think right now we're the third-ranked defense in the league and I think he's been a big part."
Teammates strongly defended Peppers' effort Wednesday. Yet the television review of Sunday's loss revealed some odd sights. With the Buccaneers driving for a score, Peppers was stood up by Penn as Warrick Dunn ran up the middle. But Dunn didn't go down, carrying tacklers before landing almost at the feet of Peppers, who had stopped on the play.
Two plays later, Earnest Graham made it 27-3 with a 1-yard run to Peppers' side.
"In our business, any time you lose, the first thing people look at is the star players," said New Orleans right tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb, whose team faces the Panthers Sunday. "They got behind early and ... it just changed the landscape of the game. So to single him out and say he's off, I don't know about that."
While Peppers had recorded one sack in each of the previous three games, rushing the passer is not all the Panthers ask him to do. A tremendous athlete despite his 6-foot-7 frame, Peppers did drop into coverage several times Sunday.
"Being a defensive end, of course that's what I'd like to do every play," Pepper said of pass rushing. "But that's not the defense we play. ... I can't say what other teams do as far as letting their ends rush the quarterback. But as far as our D, we have our chances. We also have times when we've got to do other things, too, and play other responsibilities."
Peppers remains the Panthers' career leader with 59 sacks and 20 forced fumbles. His 10 quarterback hurries this year lead the team.
But with the eye-popping plays of the past missing so far, it doesn't make the Panthers' big impending decision any easier.
Peppers is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. It was widely assumed before his miserable 2007 that he'd command one of the league's largest contracts for a defensive player.
There's been little movement in contract talks. Peppers on Wednesday was only concerned about fixing the mistakes from last Sunday before the Carolina hosts the Saints. Pressuring super-accurate quarterback Drew Brees will be critical for the Panthers to stay unbeaten at home.
"You've got leaks and when you plug something, something else starts leaking. And when you plug that, you've got something else over here. That's what kind of the case was this past weekend," Peppers said. "We were off balance. We couldn't really quite get it together. It wasn't a terrible game, I don't think, but it just wasn't well enough to get anything going."