Panthers' struggles go hand in hand with Peppers' apparent injury

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The right hand in question wasn't wrapped in a cast Monday. The hand's owner, Julius Peppers, wasn't talking, and Carolina Panthers teammate Everette Brown flinched when asked about it.

"No comments on that," Brown said. "I don't really know the situation, what's going on. I won't go in depth about it."

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The four-time Pro Bowl defensive end's hand is a touchy subject in the secretive world of NFL injuries. Panthers coach John Fox would only call it a "messed up hand." After Peppers played only on passing downs during a Nov. 15 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, teammate Jon Beason said Peppers' hand was broken.

Fox wouldn't confirm it, and Peppers didn't appear on the injury report last week. But in Thursday's loss to the Miami Dolphins, Peppers wore a wrap, again was limited to mostly passing downs and did little against left tackle Jake Long.

Collecting more than $1 million per game with the richest one-year contract in the NFL, Peppers has one tackle and two pressures combined in the last two games. He did force a fumble Thursday, but the Dolphins recovered it.

The injury also has prevented Peppers from moving around the line to confuse offenses. When he tried lining up on the left side when the Dolphins were facing third-and-1 in the fourth quarter, he used an awkward stance with his left hand down and was called for a neutral-zone infraction. It gave the Dolphins a first down, and they went on to kick a field goal for a 17-6 lead.

"It's pretty hard. I played in college with a broken thumb and had a cast on my whole hand," Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson said. "You can't really use the hand the way you want to."

When asked to clarify the injury after the Miami game, Fox replied: "I could, but I probably wouldn't." Whatever it is, Beason is surprised that Peppers is playing at all.

"I couldn't do it," the linebacker said. "I've had some sprains and stuff like that and had to practice with a cast on. I don't know how he does it, to still go out there and be productive. I can imagine it's tough, but I can't relate."

A one-handed Peppers has led to an anemic pass rush. The Panthers don't have a sack in the last two games. They couldn't get to Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne on Thursday, even with Miami using three centers and constantly shifting players on the offensive line because of injury.

"It's always frustrating when you can't get to the passer, especially on third down when everybody in the stands knows they're passing," said Brown, who started in Peppers' place.

The much-scrutinized Peppers had been playing well before being injured during a Nov. 8 loss to the New Orleans Saints. After recording only one sack in the first three games, Peppers had six in the next four.

Peppers now is without a sack in three consecutive games. With the team sitting at 4-6 and facing a difficult road to get into playoff contention, Peppers' "messed up hand" is messing up Carolina's season.

"He's doing everything in his power to get through it," Fox said. "We'll evaluate it as we go."

Notes: Johnson said he will miss his second consecutive game Sunday against the New York Jets with a strained pectoral muscle. "It's frustrating, but you don't want to jump out there and hurt it even worse," he said. ... FB Brad Hoover ran a little Monday and said he might try to practice Wednesday. He has missed the past three games with a high ankle sprain. ... S Charles Godfrey (ankle) is close to returning, but he might not have his starting job back with Sherrod Martin playing well in his place. "Whenever I get back and get well, then we'll see how it plays out," Godfrey said. ... The Panthers held a light walkthrough and did some running after having two off days.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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