For Javon Hargrave, there was a lot of unfamiliarity in 2020.
He was playing for a new team in a new scheme, and before either actually occurred, he dealt with missing the season opener for the first time in his career.
“Last year, I really was just sitting at home,” Hargrave said.
What a difference a year makes. Healthy and acclimated, the defensive tackle got off to a flying start in the Eagles’ 32-6 shellacking of the Falcons on Sunday. Hargrave was the most disruptive of a defensive line unit that went 10 deep in Atlanta.
He notched two sacks and six quarterback pressures in 26 pass-rush snaps, finishing with six total tackles. Hargrave made rookie guard Jalen Mayfield’s debut a nightmare and had arguably his best outing since the Eagles signed him to a three-year, $39 million contract.
“Javon played really well,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said Tuesday. “We expected him to play well. He had a great training camp, the joint practices he played really well.”
Indeed, Hargrave was arguably the defense’s standout performer in camp. But entering the summer there were lingering questions about whether he would justify the Eagles’ original investment. Hargrave has been the first to admit that last season didn’t go as expected.
His Eagles career got off to a dubious start when he tore a pectoral muscle at the start of camp. He would sit out Week 1 in Washington, but even when he returned he needed time to get back into shape and get used to Jim Schwartz’s attacking defense.
He got more comfortable, though, in the second half when he recorded all of his sacks (4½) for the season. And when Gannon arrived with his hybrid defense, Hargrave stood to benefit from playing in different fronts.
But he still had to go out there and do it.
“I was confident even when I was down last year,” Hargrave said Sunday. “I got amazing confidence in myself. I’m just encouraged. I’m really not going to let this game get to me.”
He shouldn’t. The Falcons’ interior offensive linemen might be the worst group the Eagles will face this season. Sunday’s opponent, the 49ers, should pose a more difficult challenge.
But you can only match up against whoever stands in your way, and Hargrave dominated, thanks in part to fellow defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and the Eagles’ other pass rushers.
Here’s a closer look at Hargrave’s performance (Note: The NFL’s “Game Pass” doesn’t yet offer the coaches’ film.):
Hargrave made his presence felt on the Falcons’ opening drive. On this third down, Hargrave was lined up in the three-technique spot (over the guard’s outside shoulder), while Cox was directly over the center.
The Eagles rushed five, so there were one-on-ones across the front. Hargrave made quick work of Mayfield. Quarterback Matt Ryan got his pass off for a completion, but he paid the price.
A series later, Atlanta drove inside the Eagles’ 10-yard line again. On third-and-goal, Hargrave was lined up over the inside shoulder of Mayfield. This time he bull-rushed the rookie and forced Ryan to step up.
The pass was hurried and nowhere near a receiver, and the Eagles forced Atlanta to settle for a field goal again.
“Certain guys get a single block, and they win,” Gannon said. “Javon had a couple singles because of Fletch really. They want to double Fletch. Well, you can’t double everybody.”
The Eagles had issues stopping the run early on. The Falcons gained 110 yards on the ground before the break. Gannon utilized a 3-4 front on many first downs, and Atlanta’s running backs were able to run through large gaps for various reasons.
“We talk about alignment, assignment, key, technique,” Gannon said. “If you don’t have those, if one of those four things is wrong, it’s hard to play good team defense.”
Defensive end Brandon Graham said after the game that there might be an adjustment period for some accustomed to playing in a 4-3 front. Gannon didn’t say if he made adjustments, but there appeared to be fewer odd-man looks in the second half.
“I think guys settled in a little bit better and started trusting their keys,” he said.
Gannon wants his linemen to read or attack against the run, depending upon the call or the play. Hargrave two-gapped with the Steelers often as the nose tackle. He lined up there some on Sunday. But he also was free to use his quick get-off as a three-technique.
He beat Mayfield off the ball on this third down, but Ryan handed off, and Hargrave circled back for the tackle.
Hargrave’s hard work paid off with two late sacks. With the Falcons trailing in the fourth quarter, the Eagles were able to pin their ears back. On this fourth down, Hargrave dusted Mayfield with an inside swim move and hunted down Ryan.
But it might have been his quick get-off — he was the first at the snap — that most impressed.
“We knew they were going to have to drop back and pass,” Hargrave said. “We’re really confident with everybody in the room that they can get to the quarterback when it came to them [late-game] downs. I just so happened to be the one who’s winning.”
A series later, the Falcons again slid protection to Cox and Hargrave won his one-on-one.
Gannon kept his linemen fresh with mostly an eight-man rotation. Cox and Hargrave led the way with 41 and 40 snaps, but they only played 57 and 56% of the time.
“We had kind of a number in our head as a staff where we wanted to see everybody,” Gannon said. “Then the flow of the game ... kind of dictates if you can stay with that plan or if you have to deviate a little bit.”
The 30-year-old Cox hasn’t played that little in nearly eight years. He said he was fine with the split.
“A fresh Milton Williams is better than a tired Fletcher,” Cox said of his rookie backup. “I think I’ve said that the last few years. It just depends on how the flow of the game is going.”
In other words, in a closer game, Cox is likely to play more. The perennial Pro Bowler didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but he earned kudos from coach Nick Sirianni for the work he did away from the ball.
He was singled up at times when Hargrave or others drew doubles. Cox’s best chance for a sack came in the third quarter.
Sacks “will come, though,” Sirianni said. “When you affect the game the way he was affecting the game, those stats will come.”
Hargrave was the early benefactor. But the Eagles are being rewarded with what could end up one of the better interior combos in the NFL — if a year later than expected.