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Bears' Peppers, Panthers' Gross face off again -- as opponents

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jordan Gross estimates he has lined up against Julius Peppers more than a thousand times in seven years of practices with the Carolina Panthers.

On Sunday, they'll go one-on-one again -- only this time in a real game for the first time -- when five-time Pro Bowl pick Peppers returns to Carolina as a Chicago Bear.

"It's not like there are any easy weeks in the NFL. This one is just a little more special than others," said Gross, the Panthers' left tackle. "I've been going against Pep as long as I've been in the pros, and he's always given me a handful. It's not going to be any different on Sunday."

Gross received a quick introduction to the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 2003, facing Peppers in training camp one year after the 6-foot-7 end was selected the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year.

While Gross flip-flopped from right and left tackle early in his career, he eventually settled into the latter spot. That meant daily competition with Peppers, a speedy and athletic right end whose 81 sacks in eight years with Carolina is a franchise record.

"You come in and you go against the rookie of the year and a Pro Bowler, it makes you better," Gross said. "I owe a lot to going against him and (Mike) Rucker as a young guy as well, but mostly Pep. I'd like to think that hopefully I made him a little better."

Peppers had some steep competition, too. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Gross was a 2008 Pro Bowl pick, anchoring an offensive line that last season allowed DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to become the first teammates to each rush for over 1,100 yards.

"Me and Jordan, we helped each other grow as players a lot," Peppers said, "practicing against each other and having those training camp battles."

There will be few surprises when they meet Sunday. Gross has seen all of Peppers' moves, and Peppers knows Gross' strengths and weaknesses.

"I've never had this much familiarity with somebody I'm going against, and he could probably say the same thing about me," Gross said. "But it's the whole offensive line. He's going to be on the right side probably as much as the left. He's a guy you've got to account for. He's a great player, and he makes a lot of plays. He's done a lot this year already."

Peppers has been given more freedom with the Bears (3-1), who signed him to a six-year, $91.5 million deal in March. He decides once the offense break the huddle where to line up to make the most impact.

"That's the main difference, more freedom on each side," Peppers said. "We run a similar defense to what we ran down there, but I can take the side I want to go to and play on that side."

Peppers' return to Charlotte comes following a lengthy contract dispute that ended this spring with the Panthers allowing him to leave in free agency without compensation.

Panthers coach John Fox was guarded in his response to Peppers' criticism from Wednesday that neither he nor GM Marty Hurney told him directly they would let him leave in free agency. "He knows how I feel, and I know how he feels, and I don't share all those things in the newspaper," Fox said.

Gross believes the fans will and should give Peppers a positive reception, even with the Panthers (0-4) off to their worst start in 12 years.

"He was a great asset to this team," Gross said. "He did a lot for the Panthers, and he was a captain with me. I had no qualms about what he did in this uniform. I thought he was a great player here. I'm looking forward to playing against him. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Gross doesn't know how he'll fare, noting "just because I knew it was coming didn't always mean I could stop it" in practice. Peppers, too, is intrigued to see how he'll match up against Gross when it counts.

"It's really a challenge because I never really played against him in a game situation," Peppers said. "I'm wondering how I can do against him."

Notes:Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams (illness) practiced Thursday after sitting out one day earlier. ... WR Steve Smith (ankle) was still in a protective boot, and S Sherrod Martin (concussion) and RT Jeff Otah (knee) also remained sidelined. ... LB Jamar Williams (neck) missed practice after being limited Wednesday. ... WR Armanti Edwards said he's preparing to play Sunday following WR Dwayne Jarrett's release. Edwards has been inactive the first four games.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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