No Heyward? No Tuitt? No problem! Well, not exactly. The Steelers run defense had improved tremendously during their 5-game winning streak (which began, coincidentally after Cam Heyward was lost for the season due to injury). They hadn’t allowed 100 yards rushing in that span, giving up an average of 64.6 yards/game on the ground.
Stephon Tuitt’s play over those 5 games was as much a singular reason for the improved play as any. Now the Steelers would have to face the Ravens, with the division title resting on the outcome, without him. Ricardo Mathews, who had proved to be a capable rotation player, who saw the most increased snaps after Heyward went down, was himself limited with an ankle injury.
So the Steelers turned to rookie Javon Hargrave, affectionately nicknamed “J-Wobble” by Cam Heyward, to anchor the D-line. All Javon did vs the Ravens was show why he won the starting NT job in training camp. He also fueled Steelers fans imagination of a healthy front 3 that includes Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward being among the best in the league.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s look at this play from the 1st quarter of the Ravens game:
We see the Steelers in their nickel defense, with Hagrave aligned as a 1-tech. The Ravens run what appears to be an inside zone blocking play. Ravens center Jeremy Zuttah has to execute a reach block on Hargave. To say that Zuttah failed is putting it mildly. Hargrave immediately gets his hands into the center, keeps his “off arm” free, then easily corrals Dixon for the 1 yard loss.
We’ll look at another run stop by Hargrave in the 3rd quarter. This time the Steelers are in a 3-4 alignment, with Javon as the 0-tech, over the center:
The Ravens run another zone blocking play. This time it appears they are attempting an outside zone (“stretch”) play. Zuttah would seem to have a somewhat easier assignment, as Hargrave is head up on him, where the Ravens center doesn’t have to “reach.” As we can see, it makes no difference. Hargrave again has excellent technique with his hands. He flows down the line with ease, maintaining his leverage. Javon not only forces the cutback, he works free to make the tackle, with help from L.T. Walton.
Of course, stopping the run is only part of the job. Hargrave would need to get to Joe Flacco. Again, this would become all the more important in the absence of Tuitt:
In this 1st quarter play, we see Hargrave lined up as a 2-tech over Yanda. . He runs a stunt with L.T. Walton (also aligned as a 2-tech over the right guard). Hargrave crashes into the center, hoping to tie up both Zuttah and Yanda, creating a free lane for Walton as he loops behind. Yanda does his job in passing off Hargrave, then staying home to pick up Walton. Hargrave, however, blows through Zuttah like he’s not even there. His quick pressure forced Flacco to essentially throw the ball away on this 3rd down. The Ravens would have to settle for a FG by Tucker.
The last play we’ll look at by Hargave may remind you of another Steelers DL:
Although not quite like Cam (Heyward will often use the “one arm is longer than two” principle), this bull rush is reminiscent of Heyward’s best pass rush move. Again, bringing pressure right in Flacco’s face forced him to dump the ball short.
Neither of these pass plays resulted in sacks, but that statistic can be overrated. Not that sacks aren’t important. Pressure and hits on the QB, however, can be just as impactful, forcing errant throws, and disrupting timing.
We saw Hargrave dominate Zuttah in the run game. His quickness, and nimble feet showed on the zone run plays. There weren’t many times the Ravens double-teamed Hargrave, but when they did, Javon showed the ability to anchor and not give ground. I didn’t include those plays because, well, we only can show so many GIF’s before the page doesn’t load.
In the pass rush, Hargrave’s best asset has been his quickness off the ball. It was good to see him employ a bull rush successfully. The more he can add to his repertoire, the more devastating he can become.
The Steelers did not shut down the Ravens run game like they did when the teams met back in Week 9. They did make the Ravens earn most of their yards on the ground, however. And if not for a quasi-end around by Campanaro that gained 23 yards, the Steelers would have held Baltimore under 100 yards. Not bad considering their most experienced DL (Mathews) was limited with an ankle injury, they had a 2nd year (Walton) and 3rd year (McCullers) 6th round draft pick, and an UDFA (Maxey).
That group all put their hand in the pile, so to speak. The one that stood out though, the one that led the way, the anchor; that was the one and only “J-Wobble.”