ARLINGTON, Texas -- He is big, but he believes himself to be part of something much bigger. He is fast, but the speed with which he has become one of the NFL's elite defensive ends is even more impressive than the speed he flashes on the field. Jason Pierre-Paul is the New York Giants' breakout defensive star, in the midst of a spectacular second professional season, and Sunday night he won the Giants their biggest game of the year.
The Giants' breathtaking 37-34 victory over the Dallas Cowboys -- a victory that ended a four-game losing streak and put the Giants, incredibly, back on top in in the NFC East with three games to play -- was a stone-cold shootout. It was a game that cried out for someone -- anyone -- on either team to make a defensive play. And while very few did, Pierre-Paul was the exception. He had two sacks, one of which was a safety. He forced a fumble. He had two tackles for loss. And with the game on the line and time running out in the fourth quarter, he got one of his impossibly long arms up in time to block Dan Bailey's attempt at a game-tying field goal.
"He is something else," a giddy Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "He has a great motor and he just keeps going. Early on in the game, I was wondering, 'Where the heck is he?' Then he comes back and makes plays like that and gets a piece of the field goal. That was something."
Pierre-Paul is indeed something else -- a physical freak of nature at 6-feet-5, 278 pounds and with elite pass-rushing speed. Those raw physical attributes were the reason the Giants took him with the 15th pick in the 2010 draft. He was a basketball player who didn't take up football until his senior year of high school and played only one year of Division I college ball, but the Giants figured they could get him into their system and develop him. Whatever else the Giants are, they know they can develop pass-rushing defensive linemen, and the environment into which Pierre-Paul was drafted was the perfect incubator for his talent.
"The Giants -- what better place to be a defensive end?" Pierre-Paul said Sunday night. "I'm still learning the whole concept of football. But I look around and we have guys like Justin Tuck, [Mathias Kiwanuka], Osi [Umenyiora], all these Pro Bowlers. When they teach, I listen. We have [former Giants defensive end Michael] Strahan come in here and he talks to us and tells us we're the foundation, we set the tone for the game no matter what we do. When you're part of something like that, you pay attention."
When you have what Pierre-Paul has in terms of physical talent and you add a willingness and ability to learn, you have a recipe for something special. The other players on the Giants' defense knew that Pierre-Paul could be special the moment he walked through their doors two springs ago.
"Everybody said the same thing: Once he gets it, he's going to be a phenomenal player," Kiwanuka recalled. "He's a gifted athlete. We always said, 'If he doesn't know anything else, he knows where the quarterback is.'"
Thing is, Pierre-Paul knows a lot more now than he did a year ago. And his teammates are noticing. He's up to 12.5 sacks for the year, which ranks him among the league leaders. But more important for the Giants, he's the defensive Eli Manning -- the guy who raises his game and makes the huge play when it needs to be made. All year, when the Giants have needed someone on defense to step up and beat his man, Pierre-Paul has delivered.
"He's understanding now," Kiwanuka said. "You don't get lucky and make that many plays. This year, you can go to JPP and ask him a question about a specific defense or a specific defensive play, and he's got an answer for you. You're witnessing the development from good to great."
And so it was that the end of this game found Jason Pierre-Paul, racing along his development curve with the same kind of speed and ferocity with which he pursues quarterbacks. The Cowboys lined up to kick a game-tying 47-yard field goal, and Pierre-Paul wanted to block it. But he got caught up with the guard and couldn't get his hand up in time. Bailey's kick went through the uprights, and an exhausted Pierre-Paul started thinking about overtime.
Seconds later, when he learned that Coughlin had called timeout to ice Bailey, Pierre-Paul began thinking again. He'd been having trouble with that guard all game. So he decided to try to go over special teams center L.P. Ladoucer. The rules say he can't go over the center until the center puts his head up, so Pierre-Paul waited for Ladoucer's head to go up and made his jump. The ball whacked into the base of his left palm, and the shock of the impact of leather on skin meant one thing to Pierre-Paul.
"We didn't have to go into overtime!" he said.
These Giants aren't home yet. They have allowed a heinous 41.3 points per game in their past three games. They seem completely incapable of making a play in the secondary when they need to. When asked after the game how concerned he was about his defense, Coughlin said, "I'm extremely concerned. But right now I'm happy we won."
For all of their failings, though, the Giants are a 7-6 first-place team. And that's because of the individual heroics of the great players on their team. Manning. Hakeem Nicks. Sometimes Justin Tuck. On this night a punishing, retro Brandon Jacobs, who ran it like he used to run it. The best playmaker they have right now on defense is Pierre-Paul. And if they do end up winning this division, they will look back to the Sunday night on which Pierre-Paul beat the Cowboys with his size, his speed, his brains and his long left arm.