TAMPA ― Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett have different body types, different backgrounds and are at different points in their careers, but they share the same goal: finishing first in their race to the quarterback.
The Bucs’ bookend outside linebackers are the best pass rush duo in the NFC over the past two seasons with a combined 45.5 sacks.
Only the Steelers’ T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have more sacks with 46, but remember that Pierre-Paul missed the first six games of 2019 with a cervical fracture in his neck following a one-car accident.
What’s even more important is that they’re dialing up the heat on opposing passers when the Bucs need their production most.
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks last season but got off to a slow start in 2020. He has four sacks and a forced fumble in the past four games. At 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, Pierre-Paul has checked nearly ever statistical category in recording three sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and fumble recovery during that stretch. He leads the team with 9.5 sacks.
“I started slow and I just have to pick it up,” Barrett said. “I want to do my job as much as possible and be known as one of the best, so in order to do that, you have to have stats. Having JPP on the other end helps out a lot. We always talk and are always switching sides now and are trying to figure out what works best for us. ... We’ve just got to stay hot, keep it hot and keep going.”
A year ago, no pass rusher was hotter than Barrett, who reached his first Pro Bowl. His performance earned him the franchise player tag and a one-year, $15.8 million contract.
That makes Barrett a free agent at the end of the 2020 season while Pierre-Paul has one year left that will pay him $12.5 million. Of course, the Bucs owe a $2 million roster bonus the fifth day of the new league year in 2021 and have a lot of decisions to make on impending free agents such as Chris Godwin, Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh.
“It is a luxury and we don’t plan on Shaq going anywhere,” coach Bruce Arians said of the duo. “I don’t think he wants to go anywhere because having JPP on the other side really helps him out and I think vice versa. Putting them over the guards this week, they did some different stuff and they’re a heck of a duo, man. When you can get people one-dimensional, they’re hard to block.”
Ironically, the Giants traded Pierre-Paul in part because they believed he was a poor fit for a 3-4 defense.
“The reason why I’m here is because the Giants didn’t think I could play the 3-4 (outside linebacker) position,” he said. “But I’m having so much fun … learning how to drop. I’m reading the quarterback’s eyes, catching picks. I knew football was fun, but I didn’t know it was that much fun.”
The Bucs’ fun has come at the expense of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who was sacked 12 times (seven by Pierre-Paul and Barrett) by Tampa Bay last season.
“He’s been a great player for a long time,” Ryan said of JPP. “He’s still playing with incredible effort. He’s always had the skill set and the talent that was extremely high. His effort hasn’t wavered as he’s gotten older. He’s continued to play that way all four quarters. So that’s impressive to see.”
How long will the Barrett/Pierre-Paul duo stick around? That may depend on how far the NFL salary cap plummets thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Barrett isn’t the only key free agent in 2021 with a salary cap expected to be reduced due to the revenue loss from limited attendance. The list of 30 includes: Godwin (Bucs won’t let their leading receiver go after one Pro Bowl); David (still highly productive at age 30 and team leader); Suh (will be 34 and may not want to play a 12th season); Rob Gronkowski (cost $10 million in 2020. Will he retire again?); Leonard Fournette likely to move on with Ronald Jones as the starter); Antonio Brown (Brady would like him back but at what price?); and Ryan Succop (finally solved the Bucs’ PK woes).