Dave Tollefson sat at his locker this afternoon and discussed the possibility of the Giants having to face the Washington Redskins Sunday without starting defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, neither of whom practiced today. Tollefson wasn't overly concerned, because Jason Pierre-Paul was standing 10 feet away.
"We got Superman over here," Tollefson said. "As long as he keeps coming to save the day, we'll be alright."
The legend of Pierre-Paul continues to leap over tall buildings in a single bound. The Giants' second-year end yesterday was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his dominant performance in a 37-34 victory Sunday night in Dallas, a victory that put the Giants in the driver's seat in the NFC East race. Pierre-Paul had eight tackles, two sacks, a safety, a forced fumble and a blocked field goal.
"If you take him out of that game, how do we win it?" Tollefson said.
Good question. Pierre-Paul, the Giants' first-round draft choice last year, has become the team's most dominant defensive player, and a nightmare for opposing teams. His 12.5 sacks place him fifth in the NFL. Pierre-Paul has 62 tackles (48 solo), 18 tackles for losses (twice as many as any other Giant), 21 quarterback hits, six passes defensed and two forced fumbles, not to mention the universal admiration of his players and coaches.
"He's been tremendous," safety Antrel Rolle said. "He's been that way all year long, and not only in the games, but in practice. His attitude, his humbleness, his motor – words can't explain what you feel for a guy like that. He's a young guy and I'm pretty sure sometimes he doesn't know how great he is and how much he contributes to the defense. But he's the MVP of the defense right now, no doubt, hands down."
"He's one of those guys that can do it all," said defensive tackle Chris Canty. "He's a playmaker. Wherever you put him on the football field, he's going to make it happen. Watching him develop throughout the season has been awesome. I'm glad he's on my team."
Everyone was happy he was in Dallas. Pierre-Paul got the Giants on the board first by sacking Tony Romo, who went down in the end zone for a safety. In the second quarter, Pierre-Paul forced a fumble at the Dallas nine-yard line. The ball was recovered by Deon Grant, and led to a field goal which put the Giants ahead, 15-14. Pierre-Paul's second sack came in the third quarter on third down, which forced the Cowboys to punt. After the Giants scored 15 points in the final three minutes to erase a 12-point deficit, Pierre-Paul blocked Dan Bailey's game-tying field-goal attempt with one second remaining in the game to seal the victory.
The performance earned him what teammates envision could be the first of many Player of the Week awards.
"I expect that out of him every week, really," Tollefson said. "The type of player he is, and how he's learning the game on the fly, he's really becoming a great player for this defense."
Pierre-Paul was typically blasé when asked what reaction family and friends have given him after a command performance on national television.
"Everybody is talking about it, but I was just playing the game of football," he said. "I have more potential learning the game. Doing what I did on Sunday I am still growing, so it just makes me feel better about myself and more confident that I can go out there and help my team out and win a football game."
Tollefson and Pierre-Paul both touched on the aspect of this story that makes it border on amazing – the star player's inexperience. Pierre-Paul played only one full season of high school football, one year of major college football and has never seen an NFL game in which he wasn't playing. As a youngster growing up in Deerfield Beach, Fla., Pierre-Paul had zero interest in the game.
"No, never did watch NFL football," Pierre-Paul said. "It's iffy right now too but I do watch my opponents and my teammates and stuff. My brother watched football all the time. He was like, ‘Come on,' but I just walked out of the room."
He watches football now mostly to study upcoming opponents.
"I never studied anybody at defensive end, but I do watch them now," Pierre-Paul said. "Now that I play football I watch my position and what I have to do. I'm trying to get better."
As a rookie last season, Pierre-Paul played in all 16 games with no starts and had 4.5 sacks, including a pair of two-sack games. But everything was so new to him. This year, the experience he gained in 2010 has helped him elevate his play.
"I know all the calls," Pierre-Paul said. "I am not thinking about it as much as I was last year. Last year I was on and off and I wasn't kind of sure. It allowed me to play slower. This year coach taught me what I needed to know and that's the way I have been playing."
While he learns the nuances of the game, Pierre-Paul excels through his athleticism and desire, both of which are off the charts. A 6-5, 278-pounder, Pierre is strong, quick, fast and relentless. After the Giants' loss in New Orleans two weeks ago, Coach Tom Coughlin lauded Pierre-Paul for sprinting across the field and tackling Jimmy Graham on a fake field goal a yard short of a first down.
"He's a very talented guy," Coughlin said. "He loves what he's doing. He loves playing. You're very, very happy to see the advancement and there's a lot more football to be played.
"He sure brings energy. He brings all of those things. He brings positiveness, he brings solid, solid play. He brings an attitude."
During a game, Pierre-Paul seems to be forever moving, whether it's pressuring quarterbacks or chasing a ballcarrier from one side of the field to the other.
"It just comes from the heart," he said of his constant hustle. "Ever since I was young, when I started playing football, I didn't know too much, but it was something that always came from the heart. Just run. If you are going to do something, might as well do it full speed, especially if you know the calls. Just go full speed. You are going to make mistakes, but once you go full speed, it's in the past."
Despite everything he delivers, Pierre-Paul is listed as a backup on the depth chart in the Giants' weekly press release. Umenyiora and Tuck are the starters at right and left end, respectively.
But Tuck missed four games this season with an assortment of injuries, while Umenyiora missed the first three games after undergoing knee surgery and the last two with a sprained ankle. As a result, Pierre-Paul has started nine of 13 games, more than any end on the roster.
As well as Pierre-Paul plays, it's wise to keep him on the field. Although he's soft-spoken, Pierre-Paul has no false modesty – at least when he's asked how good he believes he can be.
"I could be great," he said. "Right now I am not at my potential yet, so I am just learning and watching the other guys play, too. I am just learning from them."
Tollefson has no doubt that Pierre-Paul is going to be a special player for a long time.
"When I'm an old man sitting on the couch, I'll be (saying), ‘I used to play with him,'" Tollefson said. "I'll say to my son, ‘Look at him. I remember when he was a young kid.'"
That Pierre-Paul story, it seems, is just beginning.
*Seven Giants did not practice today: Tuck (toe), Umenyiora (knee/ankle), running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot), center David Baas (neck), tight end Travis Beckum (chest), safety Derrick Martin (back) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle).
Coughlin is hopeful Tuck will "get going," perhaps as soon as tomorrow.
"I can't give you all the medical terms, but it's not going to be anything," Coughlin said at his news conference this morning. "It's discomfort, it's sore, it's an issue. But hopefully it's going to be able to get under control."
Umenyiora missed the previous two games with an ankle injury suffered at New Orleans on Nov. 28 and is not well enough to return to practice.
Baas has missed two games with a neck injury and intense headaches. The injury report released by the team today does not mention the headaches. The Giants have not revealed the specific nature of the injury.
"I think he's making progress," Coughlin said.
In Baas absence, Kevin Boothe has played center and Mitch Petrus has stepped in at left guard. Given that the team has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the games with that combination, Coughlin was asked if he would consider keeping the line as it is when Baas is ready to return.
"Let's get them all back," Coughlin said. "He hasn't practiced in a couple of weeks. We need to get him back on the practice field and back in the groove. Then we'll make those kinds of calls."
*Safety Kenny Phillips (knee) and linebacker Spencer Paysinger (hamstring) were limited. Neither played in the Dallas game. Asked whether he'll face the Redskins, Phillips said, "Nothing can sit me this time."