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How much will the loss of Javon Hargrave hurt the Steelers defense?

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Looking at Hargrave and the rest of the Steelers DL.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Javon Hargrave signed a 3 year, $39 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, making him the highest paid NT in the NFL, and a higher per year average than either Stephon Tuitt or Cameron Heyward.

Not that those figures are actually surprising, Heyward signed his contract in 2015, and Tuitt signed his in 2017, and while Javon Hargrave may be listed as a Nose Tackle, Stephon Tuitt is listed as a Defensive End and guess who filled most of Tuitt’s snaps after he got hurt. No one on the Steelers defensive line plays on the edge, and Hargrave only plays NT in the base defense which isn’t used much at all anymore. The Steelers defense was on the field for 1084 snaps in 2019, and all their DL players combined for 2469 snaps, an average of 2.28 lineman per snap. That’s a vast majority of plays with fewer than 3 lineman on the field.

As far as the Steelers are concerned though, they need to replace Hargrave’s presence on the field, both as a NT and as a key backup/rotational DT in their usual 2 tackle front. So the question is, how hard will that be, what did the Steelers lose when Hargrave left? There was a good amount of debate as to whether the Steelers should keep Javon Hargrave and let Bud Dupree go, and while that debate has ended with the Steelers choosing Dupree, there are quite a few who believe that was the wrong choice, and more who believe that it was the right choice simply because Dupree plays many more snaps than Hargrave, at a position without any real depth behind him, while Hargrave isn’t even a real starter on the defense.

So let’s take a look


Pass Rush

Hargrave has a reputation as a very good pass rusher, let’s look at the stats to see if he backs that up with production.

We’re going to look beyond just sacks, because while sacks matter, there’s a lot of pass rushing beyond just getting sacks. So we’re going to look at pressures, QB hits, and batted passes.

I’m going to use stats from Sports Info Solutions free NFL data hub, along with play by play data from Pro-Football reference for a few things.

Here’s the 2019 numbers for the main 4 defensive lineman, with Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt thrown in as well for reference.

Quick glossary:

Hits is when a defender makes more than glancing contact with the QB before or during the throw.
Sack plays is the number of plays that player was in on a sack (T.J. Watt recorded 3 half sacks in 2019)
pres. + sacks adds pressures to sacks to show the number of times a players pass rush messes with the QB.
P+S% is the percentage of pass rushes that a player got in on a sack or pressured the QB.
Impact is the number of times a pass rusher physically interfered with the QB attempting to pass, it adds sacks, hits, and passes batted down. I like this stat because it removes the very subjective assigning of pressures that didn’t involve touching the QB. It’s easier to judge if someone hit the QB than if that player was the reason the QB left the pocket or threw the ball faster, and batted down passes should count.
Impact % is the percentage of pass rushes that resulted in a sack, QB hit or batted pass.

Only Tyson Alualu had a lower impact % than Javon Hargrave, while only Cameron Heyward had more non-contact pressures than Hargrave. If you look at percentage of pressures+sacks that came from making physical contact with the QB, Hargrave is last among the Steelers main pass rushers at 51.4%. Tuitt led the team with 70.6% in his shortened season, with Bud Dupree in second at 68.3%.**

To help account for Tuitt’s incredible but short run in 2019 and to give a little more depth here are the numbers from 2018.

One thing that stands out to me is every single rusher improved their impact % in 2019, no doubt helped by the incredible improvements in coverage from the rest of the defense. It stands out that only Cameron Heyward improved less than Javon Hargrave, and Heyward was the best on the team in 2018. Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt were absolutely dominating in pass rush while they were both playing. When Hargrave took over for Tuitt T.J. Watt continued to dominate, while Hargrave only did slightly more than he did in 2018.

What does this say about Hargrave’s pass rush? By these stats he looks like the anti-Dupree, a player who has a lot of great moves, but struggles to turn those moves into physically getting to the QB.

Another thing that shows up in Hargrave’s career is that he doesn’t put up more sacks, hits or pressures when his snaps increase. In both 2018 and 2019 his snaps increased substantially near the midpoint of the season, but his pass rush production when his snaps increased didn’t increase much at all.

The first 8 games of 2018 and the first 7 of 2019 Hargrave played consistently fewer snaps than he would the rest of the season. Here’s a simple comparison of percentage of snaps and percentage of production.

I included tackles and tackles for loss because as he played more he faced more run plays, but overall his stat production was better when he was playing less, and dropped off in every category as he played more.

While this may just be a product of a player training for their role before that role gets changed, or it could be a sign that Javon Hargrave getting a boost to his playing time will not result in a similar boost in production.

In the end, the Steelers lost their #3 DL, and they need a player to be the primary guy at NT when they go to their 3-4 alignment, but Javon Hargrave should not be as hard to replace as we might think, as his biggest statistical contribution was in pressures where he didn’t physically touch the QB or the ball.


Run Defense

Javon Hargrave was a NT, but he was never known as a great run defender. It should not surprise people that he quite likely was the worst run defender of the 4 main Steelers defensive lineman.

Here’s some stats for 2019, again from Sports info Solutions’ fantastic database.

Quick Glossary:

Missed is the number of times a player had a chance to tackle the runner and failed.
Depth is the average yards gained when a tackle is made.
TFL% is the percentage of tackles that were for a loss.

Javon Hargrave ranks last in every single per run category, and comes in last in depth of tackles made. Depth of tackles made and percentage of tackles for a loss show us a lot about the role a player has in run defense. Stephon Tuitt’s job is most often just getting into the opponent’s backfield and messing up the play. He doesn’t make a lot of tackles past the line of scrimmage, and rarely makes a tackle very far downfield at all. Cameron Heyward, on the other hand is the most likely lineman to record a tackle, but has a higher depth of tackle than Tuitt does, and is less likely to record a tackle for a loss. Cameron Heyward is often holding his ground and reading a play, moving to the ball rather than just trying to get penetration and be in the way.

Hargrave was the least likely to record a tackle, the least likely to record a tackle for a loss, and had the highest depth of tackle of any Steeler defensive lineman. That’s a pretty good sign that he isn’t strong against the run. Tyson Alualu isn’t a very good pass rusher at all, but his run defense can’t be ignored, being the second most likely to record a tackle, second most likely to record a tackle for a loss, and has the second lowest depth of tackle. He is at least the equal of Heyward and Tuitt in defending the run, even if he lags far behind in pass rushing.

For a 2-year reference, here’s the same chart but with 2018 and 2019 combined.

Hargrave made a lot more tackles in 2018, but his other stats were all still the worst of the four.


Conclusion

While we don’t really have another pass rushing defensive lineman on the roster, Javon Hargrave isn’t such a standout DT that the Steelers can’t replace his impact with a cheaper option, and while they do need a NT, Hargrave wasn’t a good run-stuffing lineman no matter where he lined up, so that shouldn’t be hard to replace either.

Hargrave had a flashy 2018, but he has always been a player that was great at beating lesser offensive lineman 1v1, and while that has value, with his run defense lacking and his pass rush in 2019 not living up to the 2018 hype, I really don’t think he is a player the Steelers will struggle to replace, he was at best the 6th best pass rusher on the team (Watt, Heyward, Dupree, Tuitt and Vince Williams are all more effective) and a pretty poor run defender, I don’t think that is worth $13 million a season.