TAMPA — It was during the second quarter when Jason Pierre-Paul finally felt like he had returned to the NFL.
"I got popped one time, and I was like, 'Oh, I'm back now,' " said the former USF and current Giants defensive end, playing in his first game this season Sunday after a Fourth of July fireworks accident led to the amputation of his right index finger and damaged a few other fingers.
"It was a good hit. I don't know if it was the running back or the tight end, but they got me good. I just moved on to the next play."
Playing with what looked like a giant mitten over a soft cast on his right hand in New York's 32-18 win over the Bucs, Pierre-Paul was credited with his first two tackles of the season and two quarterback hits on rookie Jameis Winston.
"It felt great," he said. "I had fun out there. Just being with my teammates and helping them win the game, I felt great."
Pierre-Paul was not going to let the accident end his career. He was determined to work hard enough so the Giants would get him back on the field. And the Giants didn't plan for a token role for Pierre-Paul. They had hoped the sack specialist would energize their anemic pass rush. The Giants entered the game last in the league in sacks with nine. Pierre-Paul had 12.5 alone in 2014.
Though Winston did not get sacked, Pierre-Paul got pressure on him during the fourth quarter to disrupt a critical Tampa Bay drive.
Pierre-Paul was credited with playing 43 of the 63 defensive snaps, a little more than the team had wanted, coach Tom Coughlin said.
"I think he made a couple of outstanding rushes, particularly at the end when the quarterback was forced to roll right and have the ball up," Coughlin said. "That was critical at that time. We didn't get a sack, but we did get pressure.
"He needs to get his timing down, obviously. He made a couple real good rushes coming up and under. So I think he is just going to get better and better."
His New York teammates were glad to see him back on the field as well. "It was fun to see him out there chasing the quarterback," said quarterback Eli Manning. "He was a presence."
Pierre-Paul spent the first quarter trying to get his bearings. In the fourth, he got the last laugh on the Bucs, registering both of his tackles and pressuring Winston.
"I think I played good," he said. "I've got some areas I need to take care of. I'm not perfect, but I'm going to try my hardest to take care of them and move on to the next game.
Pierre-Paul said he hadn't really reflected on his journey since July. "I just know I'm happy that I'm back out here doing what I love to do," he said. "I've got a second opportunity. This is basically it. I'm just helping my team and playing football."