Jason Pierre-Paul, who at age 31 is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' leading sack artist, has had to overcome several serious health scares to continue his playing career. In 2015, he came back from a catastrophic hand injury while playing for his original team, the New York Giants. Last year, he returned at midseason after missing months due to a neck injury suffered an offseason car accident. On a lesser but more current note, Pierre-Paul has to be restricted in practice every week due to a knee ailment he's played through all season.
So now that Pierre-Paul is once again back on the field, you'll forgive him if he doesn't really want to come off it.
So far this season, Pierre-Paul has played 637 defensive snaps, which is 89.1% of the Buccaneers' team total. Among all NFL defensive linemen and pass-rushing linebackers, only Tennessee's Harold Landry, the Rams' Leonard Floyd and Houston's J.J. Watt have played a higher percentage of their team's snaps this year, and only Landry has played more total snaps. Though he plays a position that usually involved a rotation of three or four players, Pierre-Paul would really prefer not to rotate at all. This is nothing new for the 11th-year veteran. In his last season with the Giants, 2017, he led all NFL defensive linemen with 1,010 defensive snaps and a 92% usage rate. The next year, with the Bucs, he played 89% of the snaps. He generally only leaves the field when a possession ends or when a coach insists.
"My coach always tells me, 'I need you to get a little bit of rest,'" said Pierre-Paul. "Reality is, when is the time to rest when you're playing football? Especially when you're trying to win a game. Me personally, I'm not going to come out unless I feel like I need to come out. I think me and my coach bump heads a little bit with that – he's always trying to look out for me – but I'd rather stay in because I know in the heat of the moment, anything can happen in just those couple of seconds."
Indeed, the momentum of a game can swing in an instant, and Pierre-Paul is just as likely as any of the Bucs' defenders to create that instant. The Bucs were holding onto a slim lead against Carolina in Week 10 when running back Ronald Jones ripped off a 98-yard touchdown run. On the very next play from scrimmage, Pierre-Paul intercepted Teddy Bridgewater and the rout was on. His interception last week against the Rams set up a game-tying touchdown with four minutes left in regulation, though the Bucs would go on to lose.
Thus, Buccaneer coaches like Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles have to balance their desire to keep Pierre-Paul fresh with the greater urge to have him on the field in key moments.
"He makes a hard case but we've still got to give him a breather here and there," said Bowles with a small chuckle. "We've got to protect him from himself, as we do with quite a few players. But we love the effort and we like where he's at right now, especially playing the game the way he plays it."
Pierre-Paul's interception binge – he almost had another one in Week Nine against New Orleans – has been an unusual and pleasant surprise, given the position he plays and his former career total of two picks in 10 seasons. But he has been producing in many ways all season, which makes his high snap count seem rather worthwhile. He is the only player in the NFL with multiple sacks (7.5), multiple interceptions (2) and multiple forced fumbles (3).
Head Coach Bruce Arians thinks Pierre-Paul is playing at a level that deserves league-wide recognition.
"He's done a great job," said Arians. "The one [interception] against Carolina was outstanding – dropped right into the zone – and this one, he read the screen all the way. He's playing lights out [and] he should be on the Pro Bowl ballot for sure. He's getting a lot of pressure and he was one of the best players we had on the field Monday night."
Pierre-Paul has had either a sack or an interception in eight of the Bucs' 11 games so far. He's played more than 90% of the snaps in six of those 11 contests. The Buccaneers have one of the NFL's most dangerous edge-rushing combinations in Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett (who has also played 85.2% of the defensive snaps this year) but very little experienced depth behind them. The Buccaneers have absolutely leaned on the JPP-Shaq duo to provide their pressure off the edge this year.
In just 37 games as a Buccaneer since his arrival via trade in the 2018 offseason, Pierre-Paul has 28.5 sacks, the eighth most in franchise history.
"I think I'm doing the same things [General Manager] Jason [Licht] and I talked about when he traded for me," said Pierre-Paul. "I told him I'm going to give him 110 percent every time I step on that field. I did my first year – second year, due to the broken neck car accident injury that I had – and returned back in Week 8 – I did what I had to do. This year, I'm having a great season again. It's not a surprise to me – I knew that I was going to do those things. It's just the fact that everybody's seeing it now. This stuff I've been doing, even in the offseason. The work you put in is the work you're going to get out. I expect these things to happen."
Pierre-Paul has stared down misfortune that would have ended some careers, and though he's still going strong as he nears his 32nd birthday on New Year's Day, he knows it all can end at any moment. That's why he doesn't want to miss any opportunity – any snap, that is – to play.
"I understand where [the coach] is coming from, but at the end of the day, it isn't promised tomorrow that you're going to get another snap," said Pierre-Paul. "Like I said, I'm always going to leave it out there. It doesn't matter if it's 100 snaps or if it's 50 snaps – you're going to see me giving it all out."