EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants' pass rush is not performing to its own expectations, and the man most responsible for fixing that problem is well aware.
"I know I'm not doing a bad job," defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said Wednesday. "But I also know I'm not doing an excellent job."
That, right there, is the issue. The Giants' defense is based on the idea they can and will get pressure on the opposing quarterback with their four defensive linemen. That concept requires excellence from their pass-rushers at defensive end. Pierre-Paul burst onto the scene with 16.5 sacks in 2011, his second NFL season. But back problems, which were surgically corrected this June, left him unable to sustain that excellence throughout 2012. And to this point in 2013, he's still been in recovery mode.
"I haven't seen the old JPP either," Pierre-Paul said. "What I put on film is totally not me. I know I'm not playing as well as I've played in the past, but it is what it is. I'm just coming off back surgery. No excuses, guys. No excuses. But I've just got to get healthy."
He's been healthy enough to play 51 and 50 snaps, respectively, in the Giants' first two games. That's more or less a full workload -- he averaged 56.5 snaps per game in 2012. What's missing is the unstoppable explosiveness the Giants and the rest of the league saw in 2011 -- the guy who could take over a critical game in Dallas and win it by himself when no one else on either team seemed interested in playing any defense at all.
Veteran Justin Tuck has played well on the other side, and Mathias Kiwanuka is fine. But the player who could make the Giants' pass rush great again if he played to his individual capabilities is Pierre-Paul. He has the high-end talent that could elevate this defense to greater things. We've all seen it, he knows it and the rest of the league knows it too.
"I still see a guy who's a dynamic football player," said Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose 0-2 team will host the 0-2 Giants on Sunday. "You still have to account for where he is. And I don't think it's about him coming off surgery. I think it's just that people know who he is now. When you game plan for a certain player, it's going to be hard for him to make the same kinds of plays he made in the past."
Rivera might have a point, but if Pierre-Paul was playing at his absolute best, he'd be beating those game plans, or at least drawing enough attention to allow Tuck and Kiwanuka to get to the quarterback more effectively. The Giants have five sacks in their last seven games dating back to late November, and if Pierre-Paul were 100 percent, it's likely that number would be much higher.
"Excellence, that's something you always reach for," Tuck said. "Every time the quarterback drops back, you want to hit him. So I like what [Pierre-Paul] is saying. As a defense, we've played 'meh.' But I know we can play excellent."
Pierre-Paul said there's a significant difference between the way he feels now and the way he felt last season. He said his back doesn't hurt at all now, whereas last year it hurt him when he was in his stance, when he got in and out of his car, when he sat on a plane -- constantly. But he did miss the entire offseason and didn't start practicing until the week before the regular season started. Some rust was inevitable.
"You can't judge me off two games," Pierre-Paul said.
We're not. We're judging him off the season he played two years ago. Which might not be fair, since it was so brilliant, but knowing Pierre-Paul can play like that leads to significant expectations.
"We didn't sack the guy the other day," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said, referring to the team's zero-sack performance against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. "We're better than that. When we do get there, we have to get him in our grasp. We had two or three times the other day where we had the quarterback in our grasp and didn't get it done."
When they don't get this particular thing done -- bring down the quarterback -- the Giants are an average defense at best. They have no choice but to do a better job collecting sacks. And the guy who can help them do that is Pierre-Paul, who's still not all the way back. Until he is -- until he plays the way he and everyone else knows he can play -- the Giants' defense is going to continue to struggle.