Javon Hargrave is quietly having a breakout season, and quickly becoming one of the best interior defensive linemen in the game. He has registered 6.5 sacks so far this season, which places him among the top ten leaders for sacks by interior defensive linemen in the NFL, and the only one listed as a nose tackle. What makes this achievement even more impressive is the fact Hargrave has put up that number in about half as many overall snaps as the players currently ahead of him on the list.
Hargrave is arguably the Steelers most improved defensive player, not taking anything away from free safety Sean Davis' improvement this season. That is even more remarkable when you realize Hargrave is not your typical nose tackle.
Javon Hargrave is not the type of player that immediately comes to mind when you imagine an NFL nose tackle. That player would be former Steelers great Casey Hampton, probably the greatest nose tackle to ever play the game.
Casey was short and stout. He resembled the Pillsbury Dough Boy on steroids, and by his own description was grown man strong. He would engage at the snap, tie up a couple of blockers, and clog up the running lanes till the cavalry arrived to clean up the mess. He knew his role and he excelled at it. He seldom went off script, but if you made him angry, he would demonstrate what he was capable of doing. One play in particular comes to mind.
I believe it was against the Tennessee Titans on the road. The Titans guard came down the line and chop blocked Hampton, who was engaged with the center on a power sweep. Much to Hampton's dismay, no penalty flag. Usually a very affable individual, Casey was visibly enraged. On the next play, he drove the center all the way back into the QB, knocking both men to the ground to register one of the few sacks of his career. Later, when asked why he didn't display that ability to collapse the pocket more often Casey replied, "That's not what they ask me to do."
Nose tackles are going the way of the fullback position in the NFL. They are a dying breed. Most players who still display nose tackle tendencies for their team prefer to be listed as a defensive tackle. They want to be known as a more well rounded player, and Hargrave fits that description just fine.
Hargrave's game is predicated on explosive short area quickness and penetration. I think the player he most resembles is a young Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals. He might not have achieved that level quite yet, but he is getting close.
Hargrave has graded out as one of the best interior linemen against the run this season, top five actually. He utilizes his superior quickness to penetrate the backfield and take down the ball carrier. His tackling has also improved since last season. Couple that with his pass rushing prowess and you can see where the Atkins comparison may have merit.
Hargrave's outstanding play recently has made it increasingly difficult for the Steelers to take him off the field, and that may actually become a concern. Will Javon's production remain consistent with increased usage, or will fatigue become an issue?
The Steelers would love to generate consistent pressure with only four pass rushers, only occasionally blitzing a fifth rusher. That would allow them to better manage and disguise their well documented coverage deficiencies. A pass rush of Heyward, Hargrave, Tuitt, and one of the linebackers may allow them to achieve just that. But questions remain concerning Hargrave's usage.
Is Hargrave's effectiveness directly related to his infrequent usage which allows him to stay fresh throughout the game, thus enabling him with an inherent advantage over the opposition?
That is a question that only increased playing time will answer.