If there’s one word to describe Javon Hargrave on the field, it’s “annoying.”
As in, he’s got to be an annoying guy to play against.
If you watched his college film, he looked a bit like the old Looney Tunes character “Taz”: furious, always moving, and a look as if he wanted nothing more than to knock you on your rear-end. And, as a collegiate athlete, that’s precisely what he did on a regular basis.
Clearly, he’s playing a vastly improved level of competition as a professional football player. But the energy, the fury, the passion? It’s all still there.
He’s undersized for the position. So far this preseason, he’s played nose tackle in the Steelers’ base, 3-4 defense, and he’s played left defensive tackle in their 4-2-5 nickel. Typically, those positions run from 315 to 350 pounds. Hargrave checks in at 305 and, at 6’-2” tall, he’s also one to five inches shorter than his fellow Steelers’ defensive linemen. Yet, he has played the positions remarkably well.
He’s also dropped into coverage.
It’s not unprecedented in Pittsburgh. It was rare but, on occasion, even Casey Hampton found himself playing off the line, covering a running back or even a tight end over the middle.
Hargrave, however, has an athleticism Hampton never did. Which made it all the more impressive, in the Steelers’ week-two, pre-season matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, to see him momentarily acting as if he was going to rush the center from his nose-tackle position, then drop back a few steps as running back Ryan Mathews made his way up the middle and turned a short hook route. Matthews was blanketed -- which may be the only valid way to describe being well-covered by a guy who is almost 50 percent larger than you are.
Surely, Matthews was annoyed.
Later in that same quarter, with under two minutes remaining in the first half, Hargrave had what may have been his best play of the night. Despite a solid double-team by the center and the right guard, Hargrave continued making his way toward Philadelphia quarterback Sam Bradford. As he reached out between his two blockers, feet constantly moving, legs always pushing, Bradford made a quick throw without properly setting his feet. The errant pass ended up behind the wide-open receiver, and fell incomplete.
Without a doubt, Bradford was flustered. I imagine center Jason Kelce and guard Brandon Brooks were a little frustrated, too.
Annoyed, if you will.
What could have been his biggest play of the game was for naught, despite his best efforts, thanks to a missed tackle by defensive end Ricardo Mathews. With 14:21 remaining in the third quarter, Hargrave started from from a true nose-tackle, 0-technique alignment directly over the center and made a quick sidestep to his right and then a bull-rush into the guard, driving him backward and off-balance. As Hargrave turned to his left, the guard grabbed a handful of Hargrave’s jersey. For a moment, it was a legal grab, but Hargrave soon had the guard beat, at which point the grab became a hold and prevented Hargrave from getting to the runner, who was now moving away from Hargrave to the offensive right. Hargrave did, however, completely eliminate any possible cutback lane. Had Matthews made the tackle, the gain would have been minimal despite the uncalled hold; instead, it went for 14 yards.
That poor guard, though? He must have been ticked off for getting beaten so soundly.
He was probably...
Through two pre-season games, though, it’s clear that what opposing players may find merely annoying now is eventually going to drive them absolutely nuts as Hargrave gains experience and playing time. And he will see playing time. That’s partly due to the fact that the only other player on the roster right now who will see any measurable time at nose tackle is still-unproven Dan McCullers, and partly because Hargrave’s versatility allows him to be used just about anywhere on the line. And rest assured, the Steelers likely understand the bargain they got by drafting him in the third round last May. A player with his production at a larger school would have easily been at least a round-two draft pick. There’s just no way a player with his already-developed skill set and his ridiculously fast first step will be held off the field for long.
That means he will have plenty of opportunities in 2016 to do what he has done so well already this season: annoy the heck out of guys across the line from him.