We’re now less than one week away from the Steelers’ first game of the 2016 season against the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. There have been surprises throughout the preseason, and there have been obvious week one starters from the get go.
Two rookies have made their presence known more than others, being defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and defensive back Sean Davis. Both of these men are expected to contribute significantly from the start, especially Hargrave who was announced as the number one nose/defensive tackle on the depth chart. Davis will likely be the go-to-guy in the nickel and dime formations as the 5th defensive back.
Both had very solid preseasons for the most part. Hargrave displayed his pass rushing ability and athleticism, while also showcasing admirable hustle. Both had a rough game against the Detroit Lions in week one of the preseason, but showed improvement every week thereafter.
Davis has shown he can tackle with the best of them, and appears to have above average awareness for a rookie. Obviously, his combination of size/speed is intriguing when it comes to playing the nickel, as he will be expected to run with, jam, and bring down the tight end.
That will be tested greatly under the Monday night lights. That’s because Washington holds one of the best tight ends in the game, and one of the best receiving tight ends at that. I, of course, am talking about Jordan Reed. Last season, Reed caught 87 passes for nearly 1,000 yards to the tune of 11 touchdowns. What may be even more telling of his skillset, was his team-high 462 yards after catch.
Davis’ coverage skills will be strongly tested here, as Reed is one of the faster players at his position, and stretches the field as evidenced by his also team-leading 14 catches of 20-plus yards. Not to mention his rapport with quarterback Kirk Cousins is great, and that should only continue as they head into their 2nd full season with each other. In addition to Reed, Davis may also face the quick Jamison Crowder lining up in the slot.
As for Hargrave, he will be taking on an offensive line that has steadily improved over the past several years. Pro Football Focus has them listed as the 11th best line in the league, and they could even climb higher by mid-season given the potential growth of their second-year guard Brandon Scherff. He’s one, along with center Kory Lichtensteiger, that Hargrave may be battling the most, depending on defensive formations.
Washington was also elite in pass protection in 2015, as Cousins was sacked just 26 times, tied for 4th fewest in the NFL. Hargrave is best served as a pass rusher, which provides a good opportunity for him coming into this contest, since Washington struggled to run the ball all of last season. They have a clear-cut starter in Matt Jones this time around, but they will likely take to the air more often than not, given their weapons. This will require a strong performance from this defensive line and outside linebackers.
It’s unfair to put an unnecessary amount of pressure on a pair of rookies who will be making their NFL debut on primetime television, but nonetheless they will be expected to perform well since they’ve earned the playing time. While it’s hard to believe they will make a huge impact playing against one of the best lines and tight end, let’s hope they are able to make a statement early on in their NFL career.