Pass Rusher Profile: Jason Pierre-Paul
PFF’s Lead Analyst, Ben Stockwell, brings you in-depth analysis of the game’s top pass rushers and pass protectors in this series of articles, breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of their play and highlighting what sets them apart. We continue today with this look at New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul.
Where this season Aldon Smith was the player to gain kudos for his sack total and garner widespread defensive player of the year consideration, just a year ago it was Jason Pierre-Paul. There are plenty of parallels between the two players and their respective seasons. Both emerged from college as “unpolished” physical specimens who could be molded into elite defensive players. Both players have shown with their early career performance that a good football player (as opposed to a raw athlete) was closer to the surface than some might have thought, putting in stellar performances almost from the outset of their respective careers.
However, because his sack numbers dropped away starkly this season Pierre-Paul was perceived to have had a significantly inferior 2012 compared to his breakout 2011 season. We’ve spoken at length before about how overrated sacks are as a number to rate a pass rusher, so I won’t bore you with that again. But on this occasion, the over-reliance on one stat hides the real and fascinating story concerning Jason Pierre-Paul (that of a player defined by one season’s sack count and then criticized for not matching it the next season). In reality the focus should be on the rest of his game, which goes into the construction of a player outside of the mold of your typical “elite” 4-3 defensive end.
Inside Pass Rush: 19 total pressures, pressure every 26.5 pass rushes
One of the key things being undersold on Pierre-Paul’s performance in 2012 is that too much focus is being placed on his “headline” pass rush number. While a drop from 17 to 7 sacks is inherently disappointing, Pierre-Paul is so much more than a pass rusher. He’s a versatile defensive lineman who can play multiple spots and is the best run defending 4-3 defensive end in the league. Combine that with his five batted passes and you have to consider the all-round package that Pierre-Paul brings beyond just being a pressure generating machine.
As a player who tips the scales at 270lbs and can be found rushing the passer from an interior position at times, it should come as no surprise that Pierre-Paul’s strongest pass rush move is beating defenders to the inside. 2012 was a slight step forward for Pierre-Paul in terms of his rate of inside pressure (down from 29.4 last season), but even so, neither number marked him amongst the elite pass rushers in the league in either of these two seasons. This season Pierre-Paul’s rate put him 25th in the league whilst last season his number saw him place 44th in the league. The number of times that he rushed the passer helped him in both seasons to be amongst the league’s top 10, in terms of the amount of pressure he gets to the inside of pass protectors, but the rate is still short of the very best in the league–marking Pierre-Paul out as a step below the league’s truly elite pass rushers.
Pierre-Paul also did a disappointing job in terms of converting his inside pressure into sacks and hits on the quarterback. Whilst the likes of Aldon Smith and Jared Allen converted between 50 and 60% of their inside pressure into taking the quarterback down (with or without the ball), Pierre-Paul only converted 3 of his 19 inside pressures into hits or sacks (all three of them sacks). This was a step back from his 2011 form where he converted seven (5 Sk, 2 Ht) of his 24 inside pressures, nearly twice as high a percentage (29.2% to 15.8%), which was more in line with what you would expect from an average pass rusher. Pierre-Paul has that clear ability to get inside of opposing pass protectors and take the shortest line to the quarterback, but in the previous two seasons he has shown that he still has work to do in terms of closing and finishing those plays.
Outside Pass Rush: 16 total pressures, pressure every 31.5 pass rushes
Part of what lets Pierre-Paul down in regard to really maximizing inside pressure is his ability to consistently get outside of opposing pass protectors. In simple terms, he can’t get outside of pass protectors frequently enough to force them to over-compensate to that outside pass rush, opening up the inside moves. The most efficient inside pass rushers almost all get pressure to the outside of pass protectors at a far better rate than Pierre-Paul manages. That Pierre-Paul only averaged outside pressure once per game this season, and only converted three of sixteen pressures into a hit or sack on the quarterback, tells the story of a pass rusher who lacked that burst to really threaten the corner and worry tackles about reaching him. In 2011 Pierre-Paul had far better balance in his pass rush. It was the outside sacks and hits that were missing from his game this past season. In 2011 he was just inside the league’s top 60 in terms of getting outside pressure (once every 24.3 pass rushes) but that was appreciably more often than this season, and almost half of his 29 pressures (7 Sk, 7 Ht) were converted into plays where he took the passer to ground.
Meanwhile this season Pierre-Paul’s outside pressure rate was around the likes of Jabaal Sheard, Israel Idonije and Frank Alexander. The comparison to Idonije is particularly interesting, with him spending a comparable amount of time rushing the passer from an interior position as Pierre-Paul did this season. Certainly JPP’s interior pass rush snaps will hurt his efficiency numbers somewhat, but in only registering 16 outside pressures all season he limited what was possible from the rest of his pass rushing repertoire. He has consistently shown that he has the power moves (one of the better bull rushing edge rushers in the league to go with his inside moves). If he can just be a little more consistent at beating pass protectors to the outside he will surely elevate his play back towards where his 2011 sack total indicated he was capable.
Tyron Smith: 7 total pressures
As a player who lines up all over the field, Pierre-Paul doesn’t tend to victimize individual blockers as much as some other pass rushers do. In both 2011 and 2012 he recorded more than four pressures on only one blocker (Smith in 2012 and Marshall Newhouse in 2011). In two games against Smith, in his rookie season, Pierre-Paul only rushed from the left side of the Giants’ defense nine times to record just one hurry against the Cowboys’ young tackle. However, a year later with Smith unsettled by his move to left tackle in his second season, Pierre-Paul got more opportunities (68) to rush from Smith’s side of the formation and converted that into seven pressures. As with much of Pierre-Paul’s pass rushing season in 2012, he struggled when it came to converting those pressures into hits and sacks. Of the seven occasions that he bettered Smith to record pressure he only recorded one sack and one hit, with more pressure (four, including the sack) coming to the inside than the outside (three, including the hit). Both players are early in their career development and this will be a fascinating one on one duel to watch as it develops in the coming seasons.
Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz: No Pressure (Week 5)
Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith: No Pressure (Week 10)
Three times this season Pierre-Paul was shutout as a pass rusher. In those two games combined Pierre-Paul came up blank on 42 pass rushes from a defensive end alignment in a 4-man line. In the two respective games Pierre-Paul spent more snaps up against Schwartz (12 rushes) and Whitworth (14 rushes) than their line mates but the results were the same, no pressure. These two pairings were amongst the very best pass protection pairings in the league this season, far and away better than anything the Giants faced in division. Prior to these two games, JPP hadn’t been shutout as a pass rusher since his rookie season (where he was playing around 20 snaps per game for most of the year). In his breakout 2011 season he got a hit or a sack in 17 of his 20 starts. The Giants will be hoping for a return to that sort of consistent production in finishing plays to the quarterback this season.
What the last two seasons indicate for Pierre-Paul, and should not be undersold, is an elite edge defender but not an elite pass rusher. At various times over his two seasons as a starter Pierre-Paul has shown the ability to get pressure in just about every possible way. However, his inability to gain consistent pressure to the outside means that opposing pass protectors don’t have to over-compensate to the outside rush, limiting the fine work that he is capable of doing with his power to the inside. The fact that he has only really “demolished” one tackle in the last two seasons, when he took Marshall Newhouse to the cleaners back in 2011, is evidence of this. The rest of the time he is accumulating pressure at a consistent rate rather than getting pressure at a high rate or in gluts. That approach is fine when you convert a high percentage of that pressure into hits and sacks, as JPP did in 2011. However when you struggle to do that, as he did in 2012, it is easy for fans and observers to get downcast on a defensive end’s performance. The key number that Pierre-Paul must improve on next season is 20%; that was the percentage of his pressure that he converted into hits and sacks in 2012. Only Kamerion Wimbley (19%) and Melvin Ingram (12%) had a lower conversion rate among edge defenders last season.
If you’re looking for an elite pass rusher, without a step forwards in outside pressure, you’ll be disappointed that Jason Pierre-Paul isn’t quite what you thought he was in 2011. However, if you look at the full package there is no reason to believe you won’t be consistently happy with what JPP brings to the table.
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