Bears salt away NFC North lead with big helping of Peppers

CHICAGO -- Julius Peppers doesn't have a ton of sacks this season to go along with his $91 million contract with the Bears.

But it would be hard to find anyone who doesn't believe he has been worth the money.

Peppers had just two sacks going into Thursday's game at Miami, but he came up with three in the 16-0 shutout of the Dolphins. The Bears are now 6-3 and atop the NFC North by a half-game with a weekend off to rest up for a showdown against Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Bears, as usual, can credit their defense for their lofty perch. And Peppers has been a key.

"I think he's great," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "I wouldn't take another defensive player in the league. He's a great player, he's impacted our defense, he's a guy you have to account for."

The Bears' defense, now ranked No. 1 in points allowed in the NFL at 14.6 per game, had a season-high six sacks against the Dolphins. Brian Urlacher had four tackles to set the franchise record with 1,488, one more than Mike Singletary.

But Urlacher was eager to talk about Peppers, too.

"He's played great all season long," Urlacher said. "The sacks are going to come for him. He's too good. If they don't double-team him, the sacks will come. That's just what he does."

Peppers has maintained all along that he doesn't care about sacks as much as he does about fitting into the Bears' system, which is intended to force turnovers. After Thursday's game, he was nonchalant about the sacks but ecstatic about the team's first shutout win since Nov. 19, 2006.

"I feel like I'm doing my part," Peppers said. "I feel like I'm helping the cause. I've been preaching that this team had great players on it before I got here, so I'm happy with how we're doing. It seems like we're finding each other and hopefully the team can get better as the season goes on."

When Peppers came to the Bears during the offseason, the knock on him was he took downs off and wasn't a team player. Angelo said the label couldn't be further from the truth.

"Don't let the sack numbers be the end result of how you measure this guy," Angelo said. "He really truly is a great player, and he's been a great leader for us, too.

"You can't minimize the intangible. I think a big part of why we've been playing good defense is the intangible. We're very, very strong, and it starts with him."

Teams have double-teamed Peppers, but his relentless pressure has forced penalties and turnovers. His deflected field goal -- the 10th of his career -- helped the Bears beat the Green Bay Packers 20-17 in Week 3. His deflection and interception turned the tide against his old team, the Carolina Panthers, in a 23-6 Bears win.

Still, defensive ends are measured by sacks. At least Bears coach Lovie Smith said the media and fans judge them this way.

"So it is good to validate it a little bit," Smith said. "But we didn't really need that. Again, his play has been outstanding, every snap he has been on the field."

Peppers had gone five games without a sack. His last had come against the Panthers.

"Overall, like I've said, I've been pleased with how I've been playing," he said. "If people haven't been seeing me play, they might look at the number (of sacks) and feel like I'm playing well now, or better than I was before. But that's not the story.

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"The story is I just happened to get a couple sacks (Thursday). I feel like I played (Thursday) like I've been playing all year."

The team's resurgence has come about largely because of Urlacher's return from injury, defensive line coach Rod Marinelli taking over defensive coordinator duties and Peppers.

As a team, however, the one thing the Bears hadn't done was accumulate sacks. They had just 13 before Thursday, tied for next to last in the NFL.

"They're overrated," Peppers maintained.

Defensive end Israel Idonije, who leads the team with six sacks, agreed.

"I know as rush men, you've got to get sacks, you've got to get sacks," he said. "We've been getting a lot of pressures, and pressures turn into interceptions and different things."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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