When NFL analysts and talking heads discuss the league’s top pass-rushing duos for 2020, the names Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul rarely are mentioned.
In some ways, it’s understandable. No one expected the outside linebackers to be in the conversation this time last year.
Barrett had never been a full-time player in his five previous seasons with Denver, playing in the shadow of all-everything Von Miller before signing a one-year free-agent deal with the Bucs. In last year’s training camp, he had to earn a starting role.
Pierre-Paul, heading into his second year with the Bucs, suffered a serious neck injury during an offseason car crash, so the Bucs were uncertain what it would get from the player who made two Pro Bowls while with the Giants.
After a start to the 2019 season that saw Barrett log eight sacks in his first three games, he finished with 19½ following a three-sack game in the finale against Atlanta. Pierre-Paul returned at midseason and finished with 8½ sacks, including five in his final two games.
Together, the pair of outside linebackers compiled 28 sacks, the most of any duo in the league.
Some could explain Barrett’s breakout season as a fluke. His hot start came as few teams had tape on him, and once offenses knew they had to account for his whereabouts on the field, Barrett had to adapt. And even though Pierre-Paul seemed to get better with every day, the former USF standout, who turned 31 in January, has dealt with his share of injuries, so durability is a question.
Still, for these two, they wonder about the damage they could do if they played a full season together.
In the second year of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' 3-4 scheme, there’s a better understanding. The Bucs were able to keep the defensive front seven together, which included placing their franchise tag on Barrett, re-signing Pierre-Paul and bringing back veteran defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. Combine that with the growth a young secondary showed last year and there’s reason to believe Barrett and Pierre-Paul can do more damage.
“I’m just excited for these 16 games,” Pierre-Paul said. “I don’t think anybody knows how excited I am. I’m low key, under the radar, but come this first game, you’ll see how excited I am.”
Asked last month if he would be satisfied with a dozen sacks this season, Barrett laughed: “That’s a good start ... but I’m always striving to be better than I was last year.”
Barrett and Pierre-Paul get to the quarterback in different ways. The 27-year-old Barrett is a technician. He’s always looking for moves to add to his repertoire. At 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, he’s slippery around the edge, using powerful legs and quick hips to turn the corner. But he also uses his countermoves with precision, timing up his opponent until he gains leverage.
The 6-foot-5, 275-pound Pierre-Paul is bigger, so his game relies more on power. In his 10-year career, he has pretty much seen it all. Getting back on the field last season, returning from an injury that had him in a neck brace for several months, was the latest example of his resilience. Even with that experience, he’s still learning, including, he said, from watching Barrett in practice.
“He’s opened my eyes up to other different type of moves because he’s a young player,” Pierre-Paul said. “At the end of the day, he has a lot of moves, and we learn from each other. He does things, and I do things, and he’s teaching young cats as well as me. We’re just trying to make each other better.”
Outside linebackers in Bowles' defense have plenty of responsibilities. Not only do Barrett and Pierre-Paul rush the passer, they take pride in stopping the run, a task some pass rushers don’t embrace. They’re a reason the Bucs had the top run defense in the league last season. The Giants traded Pierre-Paul two years ago because they didn’t think he would be able to adapt to a 3-4 defense, but he has proven otherwise under Bowles.
Barrett will receive more attention from opponents to start the season. Enter Bowles' play designing, which relies on confusing offenses as to where the pressure is coming from.
“He does a great job of putting schemes in there so those guys can’t double us all of the time and you’ve got to worry about other pieces on our defense,” outside linebackers coach Larry Foote said. “Bowles will work his magic and put everybody in a position to make plays. We need other guys to step up so (opponents) just can’t focus on one guy. Shaq, he’s a dynamic rusher. He knows how to rush, (and) he understands the angles.”
Bowles said the attention Barrett will draw will help the defense and he will try to move Barrett around and not line him up solely on the edge.
“We know (opponents are) going to be keying on him a lot as well as some of our other guys,” Bowles said. “We just have to put him in a position to make more plays, and I think he’ll be able to do that.”
Barrett and Pierre-Paul have proven they can be productive, as was the case in last year’s season finale, when Barrett had three sacks and Pierre-Paul had two in an overtime loss to the Falcons.
But what will get the duo the attention and respect they have lacked nationally? Barrett said if the Bucs win — they’re a projected Super Bowl contender with Tom Brady at quarterback — the duo will receive the national recognition.
“It’s pretty much been that we haven’t been winning and going to the playoffs,” Barrett said. "You’ve got to be winning if you want to get all the accolades and be talked about with the best, so that’s just part of it.
“Me, personally, I’m not worrying about any of it. I just come out here and do what’s expected of me and what I expect out of myself and try to help the team win. We as a group, we’ve got a lot of guys who’ve been pretty much in underdog roles. ... I try to put ourselves in a position to be in a great spot at playoff time, and then we should have a lot of people who emerge from those underdog roles.”
The NFL’s top duos in combined sacks heading into this season. Totals are based on each player’s sacks in 2019:
- 28½ Chandler Jones (19) and Jordan Phillips (9½), Cardinals
- 28 Shaquil Barrett (19½) and Jason Pierre-Paul (8½), Bucs
- 26 Bud Dupree (11½) and T.J. Watt (14½), Steelers
- 25½ Preston Smith (12) and Za’Darius Smith (13½), Packers
- 22½ Danielle Hunter (14½) and Yannick Ngakoue (8), Vikings
- 21½ Cameron Jordan (15½) and Marcus Davenport (6), Saints
- 20 Khalil Mack (8½) and Robert Quinn (11½), Bears
- 19 Dante Fowler (11½) and Grady Jarrett, (7½) Falcons
- 19 Arik Armstead (10) and Nick Bosa (9), 49ers
- 18½ Joey Bosa (11½) and Melvin Ingram (7), Chargers
- 18½ DeForest Buckner (7½) and Justin Houston (11), Colts
Note: Last season, Phillips played for the Bills, Ngakoue the Jaguars, Quinn the Cowboys, Fowler the Rams, Buckner the 49ers