Heyward back to anchor Steelers' D-Line

Associated Press

Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave (79), standing alongside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) defensive end Cameron Heyward (97), is having arguably the best training camp of his career.

LATROBE — The tape says so. One of the men tasked with blocking him says to, too, and so does the leader of his unit, a man who normally prefers to calm media enthusiasm.

They all agree that Javon Hargrave is having an outstanding camp.

What does Hargrave think about it?

“I didn’t know that,” said the Steelers nose tackle. “I’m just trying to work, man. Just trying to put plays together and get better every day.”

Doesn’t Hargrave believe the hype?

“Ahhhh, I do,” he said as he cracked a smile. “It’s one of the best years I’ve had.”

So, it’s true, because Hargrave might be his own harshest critic — if not for Cam Heyward, the veteran leader of the defensive line who’s not only a tough critic of younger players, he prefers to temper all media hype.

“Why would I temper that?” Heyward asked. “He’s improved, and he’s a big cohort for us. Whether it’s a run or pass, he’s definitely a force to be reckoned with. And with his flexibility we’re able to put him at different positions — and he’s dominating everyone.”

That’s what they’re all saying. Left guard Ramon Foster has to block Hargrave when he moves off the nose to nickel tackle.

“He’s playing like he knows it’s his contract year,” Foster said with a laugh. “No, seriously, he’s looking Really. Damn. Good. Like, quicker. His lower body seems stronger. I think he’s getting to the point this year where people are going to have to notice him.”

Foster reinforced that he was merely kidding about Hargrave being in salary drive, and that “He’s gotten better every year.” But it’s a nice coincidence for Hargrave’s bank account. He’s entering his fourth season and is a priority with the front office for an extension. Talks will begin with Hargrave and Sean Davis once the Steelers complete negotiations with Joe Haden.

On that front, Davis has missed almost all of camp with a dislocated finger, while Hargrave has been working in the trenches in a way that’s elicited raves from those who watch tape and have to block him.

“He’s had this one move that he’s been trying to perfect and he’s actually got it down,” Foster said. “I’m glad he’s on our side.”

Hargrave was a third-round draft choice in 2016 out of South Carolina State, where he compiled 37 career sacks — a ridiculous total for a 6-1 1/2, 309-pound nose tackle.

As a rookie, “Wobble,” as he was dubbed by Heyward, started 13 games, had 18 solo tackles, 2 sacks and 3 QB hits.

In 14 starts last season, his third, Hargrave had 32 solo tackles, 6.5 sacks and 8 QB hits. The 6.5 sacks is an unofficial Steelers record for a nose tackle — unofficial because cocked nose Joe Greene, officially a 4-3 tackle, had seasons of 11 and 9 sacks. We also can’t be certain that all of Hargrave’s sacks came from the nose. He did plenty of damage as a nickel tackle in a 4-man front last season, and will do even more of it this season.

“I’m getting a lot of reps there this camp,” said Hargrave, who explained why this is his best camp in this way:

“I just know what I’m doing,” he said. “I know my techniques and I just know where the ball’s going, I know what gap I need to be in. I just know how to make plays. I feel like I’ve been here long enough. I’m pretty good at making plays, so I’m just working for that.”

He agreed that his coming of age hasn’t been intentionally timed for a salary drive.

“It just feels right,” he said. “Being here for my fourth year, I’ve just tried to grow every year. I really came here in the best shape I’ve ever been in. That’s a lot to do with it, too.”

Hargrave ran more this summer and checked in at 305 pounds. He’s one of the reasons this might be the fastest defense in his time here.

“We all can run, from the D-line all the way back to safety,” Hargrave said. “I just think everybody on our team is fast. Everybody on our defense can run a 4-something. I think we’re all fast, we all can get to the ball pretty quickly.”

Even if one of the league’s fastest nose tackles is still called “Wobble.”

“Of course that nickname’s stayed on,” laughed Heyward. “Hopefully we can make some money out of it.”

Oh, he will. Hargrave’s getting paid, be certain of that.

Notes

A spate of in-practice injuries bedeviled the Steelers in their return to Saint Vincent College on Tuesday: Foster, LT Alejandro Villanueva, RBs James Conner and Ralph Webb, OLBs Bud Dupree and Sutton Smith, TE Trevor Wood and CB Justin Layne all left practice. “Hopefully they won’t be out. Hopefully it’ll be in the day-to-day variety,” said Mike Tomlin. ... With the OL injuries, and Maurkice Pouncey out from the onset of practice, the first-team OL in the 2-minute drill to end practice was (left to right) Jerald Hawkins, Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney, undrafted rookie Fred Johnson and Chuks Okorafor. Both the first and second-team defenses stopped the offenses quarterbacked by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. ... OLB T.J. Watt participated in his first padded practice of the year and said “I feel great” and that the hamstring pull hasn’t hurt his fitness.

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