EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jason Pierre-Paul is no longer the freakish athlete with big upside.
The second-year defensive end's days of impressing his New York Giants teammates with his athleticism are over. What stands out for the rest of the Giants these days -- more than his one-handed catches in practice while laterally jumping over rectangular foam obstacles -- is what the 23-year-old Pierre-Paul is doing on the field.
"He's a thoroughbred," said two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who lost his starting job to Pierre-Paul through a combination of injuries and just better play. "His motor, man, just never stops."
His 16.5 sacks were the most by a Giant since Michael Strahan had 18.5 in 2003. His 29 quarterback hits were 19 more than any other teammate, and his 23 tackles for loss were 10 more than linebacker-defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, who was second in that category for New York.
"First off, he's an athlete," Kiwanuka said. "He probably can do a number of things on the football field but at the position he is at, he definitely excels. His understanding of what our defense is asking him to do, and you combine that with the point in the season where people started focusing on him and he adjusted to all the double teams and shifts and all that kind of stuff. He's definitely a professional now."
After being taken with the 15th pick overall in the first round in 2010, Pierre-Paul had to learn how to play in the NFL.
"This year, I know all the calls, and I'm not thinking as much," the former South Florida star said. "Last year, it was on and off, I was a little slow on that, so they allowed me to play slower. My pass rush is better, run defense is better. Everything is coming to mind quicker."
If the Patriots are going to avenge their loss to the Giants in the 2008 Super Bowl, they will have to slow down Pierre-Paul, which might be tough because it will open things up for Umenyiora and fellow defensive end Justin Tuck.
The Giants didn't hit Patriots quarterback Tom Brady a lot in their 24-20 win over New England earlier this season, but they still won. Pierre-Paul thinks the defense needs to do a better job this time around.
"Every quarterback can be rattled; there's no guy who can't be," he said. "Even the great ones. You do your assignments, don't do anything out of the ordinary, just do what you do."
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press