Hand injury limits Peppers

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."

The four-time Pro Bowl defensive end's hand is a touchy subject in the secretive world of NFL injuries. Coach John Fox would only call it a "messed-up hand." After Peppers played only on passing downs in a win over the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 15, 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 was wearing a wrap, was again limited to mostly passing downs and did little against Dolphins left tackle Jake Long.

Collecting more than $1 million a 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 against Miami, but the Dolphins recovered.

The injury has also prevented him 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 Peppers is playing at all.

"I couldn't do it," he 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 meant trouble for an anemic pass rush. The Panthers don't have a sack in the last two games. They couldn't get to Miami quarterback Chad Henne on Thursday even with the Dolphins 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 getting injured in the loss to the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 8. After recording only one sack in the first three games, Peppers had six in the next four.

He's now without a sack in three straight games. 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."