EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Jason Pierre-Paul is no longer the freakish athlete with the big upside.
The second-year defensive end’s days of impressing his New York Giants teammates with his athleticism are over.
What stands out for the rest of the Giants these days — more than his one-handed catches in practice while laterally jumping over rectangular foam obstacles — is what the 23-year-old Pierre-Paul is doing on the field.
Not only is he the best player on the Giants’ defence, he is now among the best in the NFL.
Doubt it? How’s this for a list of honours: Pro Bowl. All-Pro. Two NFC defensive player of the week awards. Conference player of the month in December.
Not enough? How about his game-saving block of Dan Bailey’s 47-yard field goal attempt in the most important game of the season at Dallas in early December when the post-season was on the line? Then there’s his 16 1/2 sacks — the fourth-highest total in Giants history — to go with 23 tackles for losses and 29 quarterback hits.
So if you are wondering who will make a game-changing play in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, find No. 90 in the white uniform next weekend in Indianapolis because chances are he’ll be the one making the play.
“He’s a thoroughbred,” said two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who lost his starting job to Pierre-Paul through a combination of injuries and just better play. “His motor, man, just never stops.”
Pierre-Paul has created his own little highlight film in helping the Giants (12-7) get to the Super Bowl for a second matchup with the Patriots (15-3) in four years.
Besides his field goal block against the Cowboys, people tend to forget that Pierre-Paul also had eight tackles and two sacks, including one for a safety, in the game that allowed New York to end a four-game losing streak and get back in the playoff hunt.
The other play his coaches rave about came in a 49-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints. It turned out to be meaningless but it was such a good play. The Saints faked a field goal on the opening drive and Pierre-Paul came from one side of the field to the other to stop Jimmy Graham a yard shy of a first down.
His coaches insist no other linemen in the league could have made the play.
“I’m still learning,” said Pierre-Paul. “I’m taking steps. I have a ways to go.”
That’s scary because Pierre-Paul dominated this season, particularly early on when the opposition had yet to realize his impact and send double-teams his way.
That’s changed now, and he has still excelled.
His 16 1/2 sacks were the most by a Giant since Michael Strahan had 18 1/2 in 2003. His 29 quarterback hits were 19 more than any other teammate and his 23 tackles for losses were 10 more than linebacker-defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, who was second in that category for New York.
“First off, he’s an athlete,” Kiwanuka said. “He probably can do a number of things on the football field but at the position he is at, he definitely excels. His understanding of what our defence is asking him to do, and you combine that with the point in the season where people started focusing on him and he adjusted to all the double teams and shifts and all that kind of stuff. He’s definitely a professional now.”
After being taken with the 15th pick overall in the first round in 2010, Pierre-Paul had to learn how to play in the NFL.
“This year, I know all the calls and I’m not thinking as much,” the former South Florida star said. “Last year, it was on and off, I was a little slow on that, so they allowed me to play slower. My pass rush is better, run defence is better. Everything is coming to mind quicker.”
Pierre-Paul also is bringing more to the table — more moves and more ways of beating an opposing lineman than a year ago.
Veteran Dave Tollefson said most people tend to focus on Pierre-Paul’s speed.
“They don’t realize how strong he is,” Tollefson said. “He’s got the whole package. He can get to the quarterback. He can stop the run. He can do everything.”
Defensive co-ordinator Perry Fewell says Pierre-Paul does so much it’s hard to give him a rest.
“You have to pry him off the field and we have to tell him, ‘Hey, JPP, take a rest,'” Fewell said a couple of weeks ago. “But he loves to play the game and he plays hard and fast. We think he can play harder and faster when he doesn’t play as much.”
If the Patriots are going to avenge their loss to the Giants in the 2008 Super Bowl, they will have to slow down Pierre-Paul, which might be tough because it will open things up for Umenyiora and fellow defensive end Justin Tuck.
“He’s another one of those guys that he’s a big guy and he’s got very good skills and he does a lot of things that other guys can’t do,” Patriots guard Logan Mankins said. “He’s got the power, the speed, he’s got all of it so that’s what makes him hard to block.”
The Giants didn’t hit Patriots quarterback Tom Brady a lot in their 24-20 win over New England earlier this season, but they still won.
Pierre-Paul thinks the defence needs to do a better job this time around.
“Every quarterback can be rattled, there’s no guy who can’t be,” he said. “Even the great ones. You do your assignments, don’t do anything out of the ordinary, just do what you do.”
If the Giants can get to Brady, don’t be surprised if Pierre-Paul makes a big play to give New York its fourth Lombardi Trophy.
“This guy has pretty much everything, speed and power,” Patriots receiver Deion Branch said. “I think more so you might need to talk to the offensive linemen about that because I see him and I stay away from him.”
AP Sports Writer Howard Ulman in Foxborough, Mass., contributed to this report.