Jason Pierre-Paul could break an all-time Tampa Bay Buccaneers' record on Sunday, just eight games into his tenure with the franchise. He also seems certain to end one of the team's most notable and irritating droughts, possibly as soon as this weekend. There's no guarantee he'll take notice of either of these potential occurrences, and little chance he'll give them much thought if he does.
The Buccaneers acquired Pierre-Paul in an offseason trade with the New York Giants, giving up a 2018 third-round pick plus a small but positive swap of picks in the fourth round. Looking for edge-rush help after finishing last in the league in sacks in 2017, the Bucs believed that the former USF star, who had 8.5 sacks in '17 and 58.5 in his career, still had plenty left in the tank. They immediately installed Pierre-Paul as their starting right end.
Less than halfway into his first season as a Buccaneer, Pierre-Paul has established quite loudly that, yes, his tank is still far from empty. He leads the team with eight sacks, which is tied for second in the NFL and is just two behind league-leader Aaron Donald. Pierre-Paul is the only player in the league who has only played seven games but already has at least eight sacks.
And it has been a weekly sort of dominance for Pierre-Paul, who has tied a team record – set by the Bucs' last great pass-rusher, Simeon Rice in the 2002 Super Bowl season – by recording at least one sack in six consecutive games. He would stand alone if he can get Carolina's Cam Newton down at least once this Sunday in Charlotte. The aforementioned drought also stretches back to Rice, who in 2005 was the last Buccaneer to hit double digits in sacks in a single season.
If – and more likely when – Pierre-Paul achieves either of those two feats, it will have meaning for the Buccaneers because they have searched for so long for a player who could give them consistent pressure off the edge. For Pierre-Paul himself, though, the numbers will be secondary at best to what he is trying to accomplish.
"I don't worry about how many sacks I'm getting, I'm just out there playing ball," he said. "I feel like if it's an opportunity to get the quarterback and he has the ball in his hands then I'm going to do whatever I have to do to get the quarterback down – that's basically it. I'm not really counting them up – it's just happening."
Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner has no doubt that Pierre-Paul's impressive production will continue. The 6-5, 280-pound end was obviously talented enough to be selected 15th overall in the 2010 draft despite playing only one season of major college football, and he still has that raw speed and power. But it's the way that Pierre-Paul works that has Duffner convinced he won't be stopped in 2018.
"It's his competitiveness and his desire right now," said Duffner. "I am so excited about what Jason's brought to us. He practices hard, he prepares hard. This guy is on a mission and it's been beautiful to see and be around. I think he's showing he's got a little more life than some people might think. It's his attitude and how competitive he is. That coupled with his skills had made him a productive player so far."
Pierre-Paul also has 13 quarterback hits through his first seven Bucs games, which is tied for eighth in the NFL with J.J. Watt, among others. His nine tackles for loss are tied for the team lead with Lavonte David and are tied for sixth-most across the league. He also has 25 tackles, more than half of which have come in run support. One of the reasons that he is piling up stats is that he rarely leaves the field, playing 91% of the Bucs' defensive snaps. The team brought in not only Pierre-Paul but Vinny Curry, Beau Allen, Vita Vea, Mitch Unrein and Carl Nassib in the hopes of creating a deep rotation that took a little bit off every player's load, but that hasn't materialized yet due to injuries. And even if the Bucs do eventually run as deep as possible on the D-Line, Pierre-Paul isn't going to want to come off the field.
View photos of the Buccaneers' practice Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center.
"It's hard to get him off the field," said Duffner. "Again, that's his attitude right now. He is just so intent on being a productive player and being a contributor to the team. And, shoot, I love it. He's been very, very special for us."
Pierre-Paul has had two double-digit sack seasons in the past, but this is only the second time he's reached at least eight sacks before the campaign's midway point. The first time was in 2011, and he ended the year with 16.5 QB takedowns. The sacks may come in bunches at time, as they do for most elite pass-rushers, but Pierre-Paul says his current hot streak is nothing out of the ordinary.
"I've had better years, it's just people haven't seen," he said. "I've been playing like this for years."
REINFORCING THE LINE: Pierre-Paul may be soaking up as many reps as possible on game days but he was not on the practice field on Wednesday as he was managing injuries to his ribs and a foot. It is not uncommon for older veterans to get rest early in the week when dealing with nagging issues.
Overall, the news for the Buccaneers' defense was trending in a better direction. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (calf) and defensive end Vinny Curry (ankle) – two of the team's four starters – have each missed the last two games but they returned to the practice field on Wednesday in a limited fashion. And rookie defensive tackle Vita Vea has apparently dodged a potentially serious knee injury. Vea had an MRI on his knee on Monday, the results of which were very encouraging. Not only was Vea practicing on Wednesday, he wasn't even listed on the injury report.
MAXIMIZING OPPORTUNITIES: The Buccaneers are 3-4 nearing the season's midway point, unsatisfied with that record but still believing they can contend for the playoffs. One major problem is hurting them in the wins column, and that is turnovers. The Buccaneers have committed 19 of them and only created six of them, and that negative-13 ratio is tied with San Francisco for the worst in the NFL.
That turnovers are what is holding the Bucs back has been said any number of ways in the past month, but here's another one: No NFL team has ever had a turnover ratio of negative-13 or worse after seven games and won more than three of those contests. The last time to even go 3-4 in such a scenario was the Phoenix Cardinals in 1989.
In other words, the Buccaneers could hardly expect to be any better than 3-4 with the magnitude of their turnover problems at this point. And Head Coach Dirk Koetter reiterated again on Wednesday that it is this issue that prompted him to turn to Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, even though Koetter still believes that Winston can be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
"Right now, we just have to stop turning the ball over and so we're going to go with Fitz," said the coach. "I still have plenty of confidence in Jameis moving forward. What's getting us beat is we're minus-13 in turnover margin – that's what's getting us beat. All that other stuff, that's all a small part of it, but if we fix the turnover margin, we'll be fine."