Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants superstar defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul managed to play 51 of the team's 79 defensive snaps despite the fact he was only 96 days removed from a surgical procedure to repair a herniated disc in his lower back.
Pierre-Paul didn't play throughout the preseason but still wound up with a sack, three hurries, a deflection and some decent plays on run defense, according to advanced stats accumulated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
It was a brave effort, and one that still helped his team and its depleted defense more than it hurt. JPP appeared to get better over the course of the night, too, which was extremely important considering that, early on, it looked like he might do more harm than good.
Here he was on his first live snap since the end of the 2012 regular season, not looking right at all on a third down in the red zone:
Pierre-Paul was incredibly slow at the snap, so much so that I wondered if it was by design. Again, we don't always know what's going on behind the scenes, but I've seen every down JPP has played the last two seasons and have never seen him hold back that drastically.
The same thing happened here later in the first quarter:
And again, here:
Look how much more progress his fellow defensive linemen have made there compared to Pierre-Paul. It was almost as if he wasn't totally focused on the the center, the quarterback's cadence or the snap count and instead was preoccupied with his back. Again, that's speculation, and Pierre-Paul said the back wasn't bothering him.
"I wasn't tired, my back didn't hurt at all," he said after the game, per Dan Graziano of ESPN. "I've just got to get into that football shape."
That was apparent, too, especially in the early going. Pierre-Paul was often dominated by young Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith, who graded out by PFF as a below-average starting tackle last season.
Here, he is getting manhandled by Smith on a third down in the first quarter:
Then, after getting good penetration, he was just overpowered and tossed aside by Smith in the second:
Again, he's taken care of by Smith on a Tony Romo third-down completion in the third:
Another bad sign came when he seemed to sort of give up while trying to chase down DeMarco Murray on a fourth-quarter run:
That's an uncharacteristic move from a guy like Pierre-Paul.
He had his moments with solid penetration. Here was one against Smith where he got in Romo's face:
Here's another against the inferior Dallas tackle, Doug Free:
Then, there was the sack, which actually wasn't overly impressive considering it came nearly half a dozen seconds after the snap. It was probably more of a coverage sack but still promising considering how he started:
Finally, he had little trouble pivoting and changing field, which is important when you consider how versatile he is:
"It felt like a preseason game. It was rough out there for me," Pierre-Paul said, again per Graziano. "I didn't play to my expectations. Coming to Dallas, I play very well. But tonight was a struggle for me."
What makes this so difficult is that Pierre-Paul cannot just get back to 2012 production levels. He has to find a way to get there and then keep building. Last year's standard isn't enough based on how much his totals dropped and how much that defense struggled.
Another 6.5-sack season won't get the job done, especially with Osi Umenyiora gone, Justin Tuck aging and the rest of that D possessing plenty of holes.
Against Manning and stud left tackle Ryan Clady, he'd better hope so. Because without Pierre-Paul on his game, there's a decent chance the G-Men drop to 0-2 Sunday.