The next time Javon Hargrave takes the field, it’s entirely possible that he will be playing less than the last time he was in a game. That is because Cameron Heyward, one of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting defensive ends, had already for months been on injured reserve.
But the rookie logged 52 snaps on defense, or 70 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots, even notching a sack in that game. And the experience playing so much in order to soak up the snaps that Heyward miss will have served as sufficient preparation for an expanded role in his second season.
Drafted as a defensive tackle who could function both in the nose in the Steelers’ 3-4 alignment as well as their 4-2-5 base nickel as a penetrating interior rusher, Hargrave’s responsibilities early on were somewhat limited, but the training wheels are coming off as he heads into his second season.
“Getting those nickel reps will help him”, Heyward recently told Joe Rutter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review following a recent practice. “He has to understand that he’s not just a base player. He’s also a nickel player. He’s become a good nickel rotation guy. You can keep everyone fresh if he can be out there”.
Squabbling over semantics aside that the ‘nickel’ is now actually their ‘base’ defense as opposed to a sub-package, the veteran defensive end is right. Following his injury, Hargrave was tasked with a great deal more work in the nickel as one of a pair of down linemen, and it forced him not only to get comfortable, but better, in doing it.
As he enters his second season, he will draw the responsibility as arguably the key cog in what is becoming a deep defensive line that is designed to keep their two stud ends, Heyward and fourth-year Stephon Tuitt, fresh over the course of games—and over the course of the season.
There was even a time late in the year during the final three games of the season in which Hargrave had to step up and become the leader on the field of a young and motley crew consisting of the inexperienced L.T. Walton and rookie undrafted free agent Johnny Maxey. Tuitt suffered a knee injury on the opening drive of the Week 15 game and sat the rest of the regular season.
That was a lot to put on Hargrave’s plate, but he handled it well, given the circumstances, and he will be better for it as he enters a more defined yet varied role in which he serves as the 3-4 nose tackle and as a sub for Heyward and Tuitt out of the nickel.
But, of course, as a second-year player, he is still learning, still growing. “He has to continue to work on his pass rush and continue to understand what he’s doing out there”, Heyward said. It wasn’t until a quarter of the way through his third season that the former first-round pick himself entered the starting lineup.