The Pittsburgh Steelers are enjoying some of the best defensive line depth they’ve had in years. And it’s been tested and weathered after losing Stephon Tuitt on the second play of the season. But one of those pieces, a bonafide budding star, is too often helmet in hand on the sideline – Javon Hargrave. That’s a problem. And it’s got to change.
Through three weeks, Hargrave has played 86 of 195 total snaps, a touch more than 44%. That’s partially buoyed by how much base defense the Steelers played against the Chicago Bears and when the team is in their 3-4, Hargrave is usually the nose tackle. No shock there, he’s involved in 87% of snaps in base.
Sub-packages? That’s the issue.
For the year, Hargrave has logged just 22 plays, 18%, of nickel/dime snaps. Last week, that number dropped to just 9%, a whole two of them. That, despite Hargrave being the Steelers’ best pass rusher of the afternoon. He racked up an incredible four pressures on 13 pass rush chances, including one of his two in nickel. It’s even all the more impressive knowing Keith Butler blitzed just once Sunday and regularly sent three man rushes, a tactic he often uses against statues like Mike Glennon.
Simply put, Hargrave couldn’t be stopped. Doubled, triple-teamed, it didn’t matter. The only thing that slowed him down? How the Steelers used him and how they’ve used him throughout the season.
Last year, granted, the depth was a little worse, Hargrave played 45% of the sub-package snaps. That number has been cut by more than half even though Hargrave has only improved as a pass rusher. His run support hasn’t been a liability either; if anyone performed how they should versus Chicago, it was him. He missed just one tackle, per our Josh Carney, and it’s hard to think of a play where Hargrave struggled. If anything, he was a focal point for Chicago, regularly pulled, grabbed, and restrained as he flowed down the line.
You can only imagine how much smaller his sub-package role will become once Tuitt returns, presumably this weekend. In a way, it’s a good problem to have. No matter what, Tuitt and Cam Heyward will – and should – dominate those snaps. And Tyson Alualu has played well, too. But the Steelers must find a way to get 79 on the field. His seven pressures this season is tied for most on the team and he’s the runaway winner on a per-snap basis.
Hargrave has been a home run pick since the team took him. He became the starter in nanoseconds, tossing aside Daniel McCullers the way he does undersized centers, had the steadiest rookie campaign of the “Big Three” and has only taken off in his second year. He’s a budding star, a legitimate Pro Bowl talent, though a lack of name recognition will surely keep him out of Hawaii/Orlando/Portland, wherever the NFL decides to put the game next.
I think we all can see that. Except for the Steelers. That’s gotta change.