The defensive line, it's a tradition of great Steelers defenses. From the 1970's 4-3 defensive front of Joe Greene, L.C Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White, to the 2000's 3-4 occupying front of Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, great defensive line play has basically become a necessity for the Steelers. When Aaron Smith couldn't stop tearing his triceps, and Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel began to show their age, a dark time ensued for the Steelers defense. The defensive line which had become such a mainstay for the Steelers defense, was beginning to fall apart.
Rebuilding Greatness: 2011-2016
The Steelers did not want to let what was such a strength of their defense fall off, so in order to avoid that, they wound up drafting Cameron Heyward in the 1st round of the 2011 NFL draft, which began the first part of the rebuilding of the Steel Curtain. Heyward wound up making his presence known in the 2013 season as he replaced the ineffective Ziggy Hood and wound up boosting the play of the defensive line. His play was described as "destructive" leading to comparisons of "Wreck It Ralph" and ultimately what led to his boss nickname "Wreck It Heyward." Going into 2014, the Steelers knew they needed to get him a partner in crime to put on the opposite side.
The Steelers wound up selecting Stephon Tuitt, aka "DoItTuitt" in the 2nd round of the draft and he wound up stepping in for Brett Keisel, after he tore his triceps. The Steelers then wound up going 4-1 in that stretch and Tuitt was a big reason for that. The next season, Tuitt proved to be Heyward's equal as they wrecked absolute havoc in the backfield and he could possibly wound up becoming better than Heyward. Steve McClendon, the team's nose tackle, which the Steelers did not play a lot and as much as he proved to be an effective player, he was not at the same level as either "Wreck It Heyward" or "DoItTuitt."
The Steelers needed that third guy, they needed someone who could take their line play from being good, to legendary. As much as the Steelers were looking hard at secondary players to help the back end of their defense, they were searching equally as hard for a versatile, athletic interior, pass rushing nose tackle who they could also play in sub packages as well as their base defense and give Heyward and Tuitt a breather as they played over 90% of the team's snaps toward the end of the season. The Steelers believe they found that exact kind of player in Javon Hargrave, who they took in the 3rd round of this year's draft.
John Mitchell, who's worked with his fair share of good defensive lineman and is one of the best, if not the best defensive line coach in the league, had plenty of good things to say about Hargrave:
"He had a great workout. I liked what I heard from him. I talked to the people there at South Carolina State. He is a high quality young man. They feel like he is one of the best football players to come there is a long time. They have had some great football players who came from there, including Donnie Shell who played here. He is going to help us. I like him. I am eager to work with him.
This guy is a first, second and third down player. The things that we do, where we can put him, he can help us. When we play in our base defense, and we can control that, he is going to be over the 6-4 guard and the speed he has and the quickness he has getting off the ball, he is going to be a big addition for us. He will give us a new dimension for a big guy in our sub package.
"He played up to his ability. He didn’t play down to the talent he faced. That is the problem you have with a lot of guys that come from small schools. They didn’t dominate the league that they are in and you worry about are they very competitive. He was competitive week in and week out. What I saw on tape, I like the way he played week in and week out."
Very high praise indeed for a small school prospect out of South Carolina State. You'd almost think that Mitchell was talking about a first round prospect with the traits he pointed out.
I've not been shy about expressing how much I liked Hargrave as a prospect either, along with how happy I was that the Steelers drafted him and don't think this guy doesn't have a sick nickname either. Just call him "Gravedigger," but just how did he acquire this absolutely amazing nickname? According to ESPN:
"When I first got to (South Carolina State), my friends called me Grave because of my last name. In my first year, on my first sack, I smacked the quarterback. I knocked him back a few yards. When I got back to the sideline, my defensive coordinator (Mike Adams) called me Gravedigger. It was pretty dope to me. It stuck."
I concur, that nickname is pretty "dope."
This trio of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave looks like a fearsome bunch and while Hargrave is young and unproven at this point, don't expect that to keep him from getting his feet wet early. Remember what Mike Tomlin said last year about having young, unproven players:
"Young and defense are two things that I like. That’s not a change that you fear. We’ve got some guys that are working really hard and are really talented. Unproven, yes, but that’s why we play the game. I’ve been excited about watching them work and I look forward to watching them grow and grow together."
I'm looking forward to watching this defensive trio of "Wreck It Heyward," "DoItTuitt" and "Gravedigger." Even if they aren't the best defensive line trio their first year, they definitely have the best trio of nicknames. In a few years though, I wouldn't be surprised to hear them as the top defensive line trio in the league. Pittsburgh prides itself on it's defense and it all starts up front. Remember these names, because they very well could be the face of the next Steel Curtain.