When you think of the big names that will shape Sunday’s affair between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, the usual suspects come to mind. Names like Le’Veon Bell, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger but one player who is perhaps not getting the recognition he deserves for his importance in Sunday’s matchup is Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave.
While Hargrave will likely not attract the flash and attention that his peers may garner, the nose tackle’s presence in the trenches is crucial if the Steelers plan to defeat Brady. The blueprint to defeating Brady has always included two concepts – man coverage and the ability to get pressure with a three to four-man rush, specifically the ability to get pressure up the middle. For the Steelers to emerge victorious, they will need Hargrave to disrupt Brady and wreak havoc in the pocket.
With Brady nursing an injured Achilles over the last few weeks, the quarterback’s lateral agility has been called in question and the Miami Dolphins took full advantage last Monday night.
Here is Dolphins’ defensive tackle Jordan Phillips blowing through the B gap to bring down Brady. The Dolphins disrupted Brady all night, totalling six quarterback hits and it showed. Brady completed just 55-percent of his passes and threw two interceptions. If the Steelers look to replicate the Dolphins success, pressure with Hargrave through the A or B gap is the key to that success.
For Hargrave, this is not uncharted territory as the Steelers nose tackle has sacked Brady before on the big stage. Hargrave’s sack on Brady during last year’s AFC Championship game was one of the few bright spots from the Steelers postseason matchup with the Patriots.
Hargrave comes pummeling through the A gap, throwing Patriots’ lineman Joe Thuney out of his way before bringing down Brady. Hargrave will see Thuney and Patriots center David Andrews once again Sunday. Hargrave’s rare mix of strength and quickness leaves a golden opportunity for Hargrave to have his way with the Patriots’ interior line.
Watch Hargrave drive Chicago Bears guard Bradley Sowell back into the pocket before wrapping up Mike Glennon for a sack. Hargrave shows his impressive strength as a one technique on the above play, but the Steelers have shown more creative ways for their nose tackle to generate pressure.
Hargrave, lined up right over the center uses his quick hands to shuffle his way into Matthew Stafford’s face. And while Hargrave does not get a sack, his pressure forces a poor throw and an incomplete pass.
This simple formula that worked against Stafford on the play above will work just the same on Brady. Disrupting Brady in the pocket will lead to poor throws which when added together produces the Steelers’ best chance at victory.
The only concern is if Hargrave will see the field enough on passing downs to make that difference. Hargrave has been substituted out quite frequently this season but the Steelers’ recent game plan shows that their nose tackle will be a part of their pass rush moving forward.
With the loss of Ryan Shazier, the Steelers are focused on keeping their best defenders on the field. Alex Kozora wrote about the Steelers new 3-2-6 defensive formation earlier this week, a formation designed partially to keep Hargrave on the field. Hargrave also logged 39 snaps last week against the Baltimore Ravens, tying his season high.
The Steelers and Patriots matchup is going to be determined in a series of battles. A battle of two of the AFC’s best quarterbacks and coaches but do not undermine perhaps the biggest battle of all – the battle in the trenches. For the Steelers and Hargrave, this is one battle they cannot afford to lose.