After a strong rookie campaign, which included sacking premier quarterback Tom Brady in last season’s AFC Championship game, second year nose tackle Javon Hargrave appears to be taking his game to another level. After 8 games, Hargrave has not only equaled the amount of tackles he accumulated last season, he is also on pace to beat his number of sacks as well.
His performance sunday against the Detroit Lions may have been one of his best, as he proved to be a force in the middle, coming up big in several of the Steelers defense’s goaline stands, and helping confine the Lions to five field goals and no touchdowns. What perhaps many fans may had not noticed during the course of the game was the manner in which he dominated Lions center Travis Swanson. His ability to win practically every battle against Swanson was essential in clogging the middle, and minimizing the Lions running game which featured rookie running Ameer Abdullah.
When reviewing Hargrave on film, what stood out was not necessarily his fluid moves or active use of hands; rather, it was the one aspect that is critical for all defensive linemen to have in order to win battles in the trenches — this is called pad level.
Why is Pad Level Important?
For defensive linemen, strength, speed and agility are desired qualities. But what separates good linemen from great ones is the ability to consistently use these noted attributed to win battles. For a defensive lineman, pad level is an essential skill in order to routinely win one-on-one battles, or to take on double team blocks from offensive linemen.
Playing with leverage entails playing with a low pad-level; thus allowing a defensive lineman to keep his size and strength at a base, as opposed to his upper body. At 6’1 305lbs, Hargrave’s size give him an advantage over taller linemen, as he is naturally able to keep a lower center of gravity. What is noticeable is that his pad level is always lower than the lineman he engages with, which affords him the ability to utilize his lower body strength to his advantage.
Hargrave Takes on a Double Team
This clip illustrates how keeping a low pad level can help a lineman beat a double team. In this clip, Hargrave is seen in a shaded alignment on the Lions guard. From the snap, both the Lions guard and tackle converge on Hargrave. Notice how Hargrave keeps a lower pad level than both the tackle and guard when he takes on the double. The result is such that both of them are unable to create an opening for the running to run through. Because of this tremendous effort, the Steelers’ linebacker Ryan Shazier is able to fill in the gap, and give the other defenders time to converge on the Lions running back. If Hargrave had stood upwards to take on the double team, he would have likely been driven back, creating a hole for the Lions running back to go through, probably resulting in a substantial gain.
Steelers Defense’s Late Goal Line Stance
For the majority of viewers who viewed this play, the person they may have noticed was Ryan Shazier making a play that could have been a pick six to clinch the game. In actuality, the person who caused the errant pass by Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was Javon Hargrave.
In this play, Hargrave is aligned head on Lions center Travis Swanson. From the snap, Hargrave gets under Swanson’s pads and uses his lower body strength to drive Swanson back. Note how is able to drive Swanson back far enough to where Stafford is in the pocket. Hargrave pushes Swanson so far back, he is able to disrupt Stafford’s throwing motion, changing the trajectory of his pass. The result was almost disastrous for the Lions, as it was almost intercepted by Shazier. This play is small sample of how he was able to impose his will on Swanson for much of the game. This is also a great illustration of power and technique working in unison.
In the examples shown, it is clear how essential pad level is to someone like Hargrave. The misconception by many is that due to his size, or lack thereof, he could be physically handled by bigger linemen. Hargrave at this point in his career has proven the contrary and is only getting better with every down he plays.
Every great 3-4 defense has a dominant nose tackle that prevents running backs from coming inside and is able to make plays in the backfield. Many Steelers fans have been waiting for the second coming of the legendary Casey Hampton. Perhaps Hargrave may never be that person, but at the way he is trending, he may carve out his own legendary status. The Steelers defense is a much better unit when he is present.