TAMPA — After notching four sacks in as many games, a dizzying pace that would nearly match his career-high of 16.5 in 2011, Jason Pierre-Paul was asked if he had a number of quarterback take downs in his mind for this season.
“Unlimited,” Pierre-Paul said.
A scrum of reporters waited for a smile. A hint of hyperbole. Evidence of exaggeration.
Pierre-Paul let that word lay naked before simply repeating it more forcefully.
“UN-limited,” he said.
The truth is there’s probably not a defensive end in the NFL who plays with more physical limitations than Pierre-Paul.
But at 29, in his ninth pro season and his first not in a Giants uniform, he has learned to compensate for the loss of several fingers on his right hand from a devastating July 4 fireworks accident that nearly ended his career in 2015.
No matter what you think of the NFL’s worst scoring defense, which is allowing 34.8 points per game, Pierre-Paul has been its best player.
Even in the Bucs’ 48-10 clubbing by the Chicago Bears Sept. 29, Pierre-Paul had seven tackles, including two tackles for loss, one sack and one quarterback hit. He ranks fourth on the team in tackles and leads in sacks (four) and quarterback hits (nine).
“When he steps onto the field, he doesn’t think there’s anybody who can block him,”‘ Bucs defensive line coach Brentson Buckner said. “That’s the attitude that the great ones have. And he’s brought that attitude every day.”
For Pierre-Paul, his insatiable will, perhaps more than his skill, is what has allowed him to reclaim his status as one of the best pass rushers and complete defensive ends in the NFL.
Pierre-Paul admits he has done it despite playing one-handed. The fireworks accident caused the amputation of his right index finger and the tip of his right thumb while severely damaging his middle finger.
That makes it particularly hard for Pierre-Paul to use his hands like most defensive linemen to stab and grab or pull blockers, standard technique.
“Understand this, when it comes to my accident, I think people forget that I’m missing fingers or I can’t pull,”‘ Pierre-Paul said. “Nobody realizes, but I realize it. I had to adjust and I’m still adjusting big time. But it’s not going to affect my way of playing.
“Everybody forgets about it, but it’s best for all the players on the team to have 10 fingers. Trust me.”
Pierre-Paul has had to learn to adjust to doing everything without the full use of his right hand. Within months of the accident, he learned to use his right foot to hold a shoelace in place so he could tie it with his left hand.
He did exercises to strengthen the ring and small fingers, which are the keys to the grip in his right hand.
But on the field, the adjustments continue.
“There’s a lot of things you can’t do,” Pierre-Paul said. “You can’t pull and snatch. That’s the biggest thing I can’t do. I can’t snatch. That triggers my play of playing a whole other way because I can’t do the things I used to. At the end of the day, it’s all I have to do. It is what it is. I’m going to work with what I’ve got.”
How does he compensate? “Footwork,” Pierre-Paul said. “Technique-wise. Being at the right place at the right time. Knowing what you can do.”
The Bucs knew enough about Pierre-Paul to trade a third-round pick and swap fourth-rounders with the Giants for the former USF star, who had spent his entire career in New York. JPP was coming off a season in which he played more than 1,000 defensive snaps for the Giants, recording eight sacks.
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter admits he wasn’t sure what Pierre-Paul’s impact would be this season after he elected to skip organized team activities, leaving a $250,000 offseason workout bonus on the table.
“He told me in the offseason, when he didn’t come to the OTAs, he said, ‘I know what I’m doing, I’ll be fine, I’ll learn it, trust me, don’t worry about,’ ” Koetter said. “And I’ve got to admit, I kind of thought, ‘Oh, yeah, just wait. I’ve heard that before.’ But he’s done it. A guy who backs up what he says, I have a lot of respect for that and he has played very consistently, not only in practice but in the games. And I think I’ve said before, I’ve been impressed with him as a vocal leader and a leader who sets the example by how he works. I can’t say enough good things.”
Quiet by nature, Pierre-Paul has shared his experience with the accident several times this season with the message to not take anything for granted. His passion for the game has intensified and it bubbled to the surface Sept. 29 at Chicago when he gathered defensive teammates between series on the sidelines and gave them a tongue-lashing for their first half performance at Chicago.
“Yeah, you know, anytime you’re playing football, just the passion for the game, you get frustrated at times,” Pierre-Paul said of the outburst. “I got maybe a little frustrated. Sometimes guys need it.”
What’s lost about Pierre-Paul’s performance is that he’s even a better run stopper than pass rusher, which is saying something. Nobody sets the edge of the defense better and his nearly 35-inch arms gives him a long reach to corral ball carriers.
“Nobody can block me, man, unless I block myself,” Pierre-Paul said. “That’s how I see it. Two, three men. Bring them on. I’m going to try and get past them.”
Shortly after arriving to the Bucs, at his introductory news conference, Pierre-Paul was asked what he had learned about himself from the accident.
“That I’m unstoppable,” he said.
But in his first game with the Bucs, he sprained his knee on a running play. He finished the game but has needed a knee brace and treatment ever since.
“I don’t feel like I’m playing as well as I want to,” Pierre-Paul said. “I feel like I could do better but I’m always pushing to 110 percent. Until I really understand all the plays and it just clicks, it’s a whole new defense. Now I have to learn the language. I want to play fast, but I want to play fast and not think. I’m working my way to doing that.
“You know me, I’m more of a visual player. When I see it, if I mess up on it, you tell me, ‘Don’t do it again.’ It’s like touching a hot stove. Once you put your hand on it you get burned and say, ‘I’m not doing that (bleep) again. I (bleeping) played with fireworks, so I am not doing that (bleep) again.'”
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith has a lot of problems, but Pierre-Paul isn’t one of them. His team has only eight sacks. Half of them belong to Pierre-Paul.
“It’s amazing,” Smith said. “Jason is such a competitive guy. We want to have a rotation and it’s hard to get him off the field because he wants to play every snap. It’s just amazing. And he’s great with the younger guys. He’s a guy who likes to collaborate. He likes to talk about things and I think that’s good and I think it’s going to help us in the long run.”
Can Smith detect any limitations when he watches JPP perform?
“No, I do not. It’s not detectable,” Smith said. “He can rush inside, he can rush outside. He can rush on either side.”
Unstoppable. Unlimited. Unbelievable.