Commentary

'Freak' Pierre-Paul leading Giants' line

Ultra-raw DE is carrying Big Blue's pass rush, and needs to continue the feat in Big D

Updated: December 7, 2011, 10:19 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If the New York Giants' defense is going to hold down the Dallas Cowboys in Sunday night's must-win game that could decide the NFC East title, they know the formula they have to play.

The Giants need their pass rush to get after Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo before Romo can pick apart their banged-up secondary or a linebacker corps that's been reduced to backups and rookies. And the Giants know, with Justin Tuck still compromised by injuries and Osi Umenyiora again unlikely to play on his bad ankle, second-year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is going to have to continue leading the Giants' pass rush.

All of that is serious stuff at the most serious juncture yet in the Giants' season.

And yet, the other Giants can't help themselves -- when you ask them about Pierre-Paul, they don't mean to give answers that come out sounding like comedy bits. It just happens because JPP, as he's called, has 10.5 sacks through 12 games this year. And on the way to complimenting him for how he's often kept their injury-riddled defense afloat, many Giants independently circle back to the same point:

Imagine how great the kid will be when he really knows what he's doing.

"How raw is he?" veteran safety Deon Grant repeats with a laugh. "His raw ability is so good it makes him look like he is mature in the game."

"He's freakish -- that's what I call him," defensive back Antrel Rolle says. "His effort and attitude has been very crucial for us, and uplifting for an older guy like me. He's been remarkable."

"He's so raw," Giants veteran defensive tackle Rocky Bernard says with a smile, "that in our meetings when he first got here, our coaches would say, 'Hey, we need you to line up in the B gap or line up in the five technique' and he literally had to count out the spots to figure it out. Most players already know the terminology. But it was all new to him because he's so new to football, period."

"But that only happened during his rookie year, right?" Bernard is asked.

"Well, this year, too," Bernard says, bursting into laughter again. "Sometimes we kid him and say, 'Man, you must know more than you let on' because of how well he plays. Usually people who haven't played that much don't make it to this level at all. And if they do make it, they don't play at the level he's playing at. So it's a credit to him. He's just so, you know …"

Jason Pierre-Paul
Bob Donnan/US PresswireJason Pierre-Paul, at just 22, leads the Giants with 10.5 sacks in 12 games this season.

"Freakish?"

"Freakish," Bernard agrees.

The story of how Pierre-Paul played only one season of high school football, two years of junior college ball and one season of major college football at South Florida prior to applying for the 2010 NFL draft is well known among the other Giants.

But that storyline is quickly being overtaken by how he's carrying on the franchise's tradition of having one of the league's best pass rushes, a trait that dates back to Lawrence Taylor, runs through Michael Strahan, then Umenyiora, Tuck and now Pierre-Paul. And they hate to think where they'd be without him, given how much time Tuck and Umenyiora have missed.

Pierre-Paul was just 20 when the Giants took a chance and made him the 15th pick in the 2010 draft. Even now, at 22, he's not all that far removed from making it onto the NFL's radar the hard way. He grew up as the son of Haitian immigrants in Pompano Beach, Fla. His father went blind before Jason was born, and his mother was a housekeeper who often worked 12 hours or more a day to make ends meet once his father lost his sight.

Pierre-Paul has said he never would've been able to afford college had it not been for his football scholarship. And now that he's in the NFL and he has been able to lift his entire family to a better life, he often says, "I have to stay here." How? "By being a beast." And sacking the quarterback? "I don't like quarterbacks," he'll agree.

Getting even four or five words out of Pierre-Paul like that can be a challenge, especially in a group setting like Wednesday's media swarm in the Giants' locker room.

Pierre-Paul talks in Twitter-size bursts most of the time. He's 6-foot-6, 280 pounds, he runs like a deer and, as Rolle says, "He's got a motor that never stops." His 81-inch wingspan is so long, "It's tough for an offensive linemen to even get their hands on him," Giants guard Mitch Petrus says. "He also has moves. Crazy athleticism. And he's very strong. As good as he is now, he's going to be unstoppable soon."

To which Pierre-Paul shrugs and says, "I think I'm playing pretty good."

Pierre-Paul still defers to his elders such as Tuck and Umenyiora and Bernard. And Tuck, whose locker is next to Pierre-Paul's, is among the Giants players who have taken a special interest in him.

"If he stays healthy, he is going to create havoc for a long time," Tuck said after Sunday's loss to the Green Bay Backers. "It is just amazing that from week to week he is still going like this. It is amazing what he doesn't know, and I think sometimes that helps him out. … We watch tapes with him and he is like, 'Why did you do this?' and 'Why did you do that?' and 'If this guy does this, how do you counter it?' I see him being a beast right now. But he is going to be better."

The Giants need Pierre-Paul to stay at the level he's been for at least a few more weeks.

The way the Giants played in their 38-35 defeat to unbeaten Green Bay has sparked new hope that they may yet find a way to get into the playoffs this season. They barely care that they're only 6-6 and travel to Dallas riding a four-game losing streak.

The Giants were able to harass Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throughout the game. And a lot of that was because of Pierre-Paul, who hit Rodgers twice, blocked two passes, was credited for hurrying Rodgers another three times, and had a half sack near the end of the game that had the MetLife crowd going nuts -- until a penalty in the Giants' secondary wiped away the play.

Green Bay pulled out the game in the last 58 seconds. But the Giants are talking openly now about feeling revived and believing they can sweep all four of their remaining games, including their remaining two against Dallas to win the NFC East. But to do so -- and to keep hiding the rest of the defense's deficiencies -- the Giants also know they have to keep rushing the passer. Because when the Giants' defense does, it goes from looking ordinary at best to making the Giants look as though they are good enough to beat anybody -- something they proved with their win at New England.

Now, Pierre-Paul's newest challenge is that opposing teams know it too.

When asked Wednesday if he's noticed more double teams coming his way, Pierre-Paul shrugged and said, "Seems like it. I just try to look past it." And he fell silent.

Do double teams frustrate him? "No," he shot back. "I just deal with it. See if a triple team comes next." Then he smiled.

Pierre-Paul knows handling the extra attention is part of the Giants' tradition of great defensive linemen. He says: "It's been a good tradition."

"Maybe I'll make a new one," he adds.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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