On Sunday the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) take on former teammate Javon Hargrave and his fellow Philadelphia Eagles at Heinz Field. Hargrave signed a three-year, $39 million contract with the Eagles in March after spending his first four years in the NFL with the Steelers. Naturally, with a contract that size he’s expected to be a key cog in Philadelphia’s defensive line for years to come.
But much like his team (1-2-1), Hargrave’s Eagles career got off to a rocky start when he suffered a pectoral injury during training camp and missed the team’s regular season opener at Washington. Since then he’s had minimal impact, at least on paper. He has played 99 defensive snaps, contributing half a sack, plus one assisted tackle and one quarterback hit.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that many people in Philadelphia quickly lost patience with Hargrave.
Yet he has improved in every game since he played just 25 defensive snaps against the Los Angeles Rams and then 32 snaps in Philadelphia’s tie against the Cincinnati Bengals. After the Bengals game Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz admitted that Hargrave “wasn’t playing his best ball” versus Los Angeles.
“He’s missed so much time in training camp and no offseason program. So not that you excuse anything, but I think it wasn’t a surprise that he wasn’t playing his best ball,” Schwartz offered. “But I thought he made a really big jump from last week to this week. He was disruptive.”
Eagles Pass Rush Looking Dominant
Of course, the Steelers are well aware how disruptive Hargrave—and his fellow Eagles linemen—can be. During his four seasons in Pittsburgh, Hargrave started 52 of 66 games after being a third-round pick out of South Carolina State in the 2016 NFL Draft.
In those 66 games he was in on 168 tackles (106 solo), with 22 tackles for loss, 22 quarterback hits, 14.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Those are gaudy numbers for a nose tackle in Pittsburgh’s defense, hence the big contract offer from the Eagles.
Yet Hargrave is still surrounded by the same kind of top-notch defensive line talent he played with in Pittsburgh. Speaking with the media on Thursday, Hargrave said, “I never seen anything like this to have so much talent on one defensive line.”
The Eagles Lead the NFL in Sacks
The numbers back that up, as the Eagles lead the NFL in sacks with 17. And while the team’s top three defensive tackles—Fletcher Cox, Mailk Jackson and Hargrave—haven’t posted eye-opening stats, all require the kind of attention that creates opportunities for defensive ends Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett, who have three, three, and 2.5 sacks, respectively.
It may not be coincidence, either, that Philadelphia’s pass rush has improved dramatically since Hargrave started playing more. During the tie with the Bengals and last weekend’s 25-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers, the Eagles defense has recorded 13 sacks and 53 quarterback pressures. “Once we got healthy on the D-line and got Derek [Barnett] back and got Hargrave back, I think you really saw a big jump from those guys just production-wise,” said Schwartz.
That’s why one can argue that the key to the game—both for the Steelers and for the Eagles—is slowing the opponent’s pass rush.
At the moment, the Eagles are on pace for a 68-sack season; the Steelers are on a completely unsustainable pace to record 80 sacks. The Steelers do, however, have a realistic chance of breaking a franchise record for most consecutive seasons with 50+ sacks, which would put them in territory not seen in the NFL since the 1980s.