Commentary

Giants' Pierre-Paul is in good company

DE is next in a long line of great Giants pass-rushers that includes Taylor, Strahan

Originally Published: January 11, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

He just turned 23.

Jason Pierre-Paul is in the infancy of his football career. It wasn't long ago that he had to be reminded where the "B" gap was or how to line up in a five-technique. Even still, he is learning how to read an opponent's footwork to gain an advantage.

He is not a film guy, not yet at least, not like his teammate Osi Umenyiora, who is old enough and experienced enough to know that the film can help teach him and make him better.

Pierre-Paul isn't what he will eventually be, but the New York Giants defensive end is already this: the most naturally gifted defensive player still playing in the postseason.

With work and coaching and more experience, what can Pierre-Paul become?

"He will be a Hall of Famer," one AFC personnel man told me.

There is no higher praise.

Pierre-Paul's ascension from potential rookie bust to second-year sensation is a big reason the Giants are alive in the playoffs and preparing for a divisional game at Green Bay on Sunday. Aside from Eli Manning, no one on the Giants' roster is more important. As a pass-rusher, Pierre-Paul is a monster. Off the edge, up the middle, he uses his 81-inch wingspan to overpower and discard opposing linemen.

For a franchise that is known for its pass-rushers, Pierre-Paul is as special as they come. Lawrence Taylor. Michael Strahan. Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. Jason Pierre-Paul.

[+] EnlargeJason Pierre-Paul
Tim Farrell/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireThe emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul has helped the Giants overcome injuries on their defensive line.
In just his second season, Pierre-Paul recorded 16.5 sacks, ranking fourth in the NFL behind Minnesota's Jared Allen, Dallas' DeMarcus Ware and Philadelphia's Jason Babin. It took Taylor six seasons to get that many, and four to get to double digits. Strahan needed nine seasons to get as many, and five to get to double digits.

The last four games of the regular season, at a time when the Giants desperately needed a spark, Pierre-Paul was a beast. New York had lost four consecutive games heading into a Week 14 game at Dallas with the NFC East still up for grabs. In front of a national television audience, Pierre-Paul had his finest game as a pro. He sacked Tony Romo twice, had eight tackles, forced a fumble, recorded a safety, and on the final play of the game, blocked a Dallas field goal attempt at the end of regulation to preserve a three-point New York win.

Two weeks later against the Jets, Pierre-Paul had two more sacks and became the first Giant since Strahan in 2001 to be named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time in three weeks.

In the last four games of the regular season, Pierre-Paul had six sacks as the Giants went 3-1 to make the playoffs.

"I don't feel like I'm there, but I will get there," Pierre-Paul said in a telephone interview on Tuesday morning. "It takes time. I will take it one by one. But when I do get there, I will know."

How?

"Something will tell me," he said. "I'll know I'll be doing even better than I'm doing now."

Pierre-Paul didn't even start playing organized football -- at any level -- until 2005. The son of Haitian immigrants, Pierre-Paul grew up in Florida but gravitated to basketball. He could palm a basketball by the age of 14, and it wasn't until Manny Martin, then the defensive coordinator at Deerfield Beach High School, coaxed him onto the football field as a junior did his hands ever touch a pigskin.

Initially, Pierre-Paul played wide receiver, but the terminology confused him -- "X, Y, Z and all that crap, I couldn't understand it," Pierre-Paul said -- and he didn't enjoy getting hit by the defensive players.

"Basically, I thought, 'I'm about to get killed out here with all these big kids,'" Pierre-Paul said. "Isn't that crazy? I got hit a couple of times, and then they moved me to defense. Then I was a defensive end."

And he hasn't looked back. Pierre-Paul essentially played one season of high school, two seasons at a pair of junior colleges and one season at South Florida before the Giants picked him in the first round of the 2010 draft.

Pierre-Paul played sparingly as a rookie, leading some to call him a bust. But with Umenyiora, Tuck and Dave Tollefson dealing with injuries this season, Pierre-Paul got his chance and started 12 games. He made the most of it.

At 6-foot-5, 278 pounds and with 4.67 speed and long hands, Pierre-Paul has nothing but upside.

"He hasn't even reached his potential," the AFC personnel man said. "He's a phenomenal athlete who is getting his production off his athletic ability alone right now."

Pierre-Paul doesn't lack confidence, either.

In the aftermath of the Giants' 24-2 win over Atlanta on Sunday, Pierre-Paul turned his attention to the top-seeded Packers and told reporters in the locker room, "We're going to win, 100 percent we are going to win."

The New York tabloids ran wild.

"I guaranteed a win," Pierre-Paul said. "I told them we should win 100 percent if we go out there and execute our plays. If the offense plays the way they played and if the defense plays even better, special teams, we should come out with a win. If all three phases play together, then we'll be good."

Asked if Tom Coughlin said anything to him about his prediction, Pierre-Paul said no.

"He hasn't talked to me about it," he said. "I can't really say we're going to lose, can I? You don't expect to lose a game. That's how I feel. That's what I think. If everybody does their job, we should win."

Pierre-Paul's teammates don't mind his bluster. He is popular in the locker room, works hard, is laid back and has been described by teammates as raw and a freak of nature. When Pierre-Paul figures the game out, when he grasps the nuances of the position, he could be scary good.

The Hall of Fame? It is unlikely Pierre-Paul, who did not watch football as a kid and doesn't watch it now, even knows where Canton, Ohio, is on a map. But he will learn, just like he is learning about the Pro Bowl and being named All-Pro.

"I know when I'm voted to the Pro Bowl, I guess that's a great thing," Pierre-Paul said. "Hopefully I won't be able to make it."

He wants to keep playing. The Super Bowl is the goal. That quest continues on Sunday.

"It's going to be a fight," Pierre-Paul said. "Either you win or you go home. Once you touch that grass, you know in your head only one team is going to walk out of there with a win."

He is young, but that much Pierre-Paul understands perfectly.

Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.