While anticipating Alejandro Villanueva’s first start for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was not the end result that I was most interested in. It was obvious, given his limited experience, that mistakes would be made.
What I was most interested in seeing was whether or not he would be able to play with more confidence and aggression as a result of thinking less and getting more reps, which is something that he lacked substantially in his spot work the week before.
Villanueva’s performance had his warts as he is dead center in a whirlwind of growing pains adapting to the role of a starting lineman, but I did see some progress in terms of witnessing his ability to play with poise and physicality, in isolated instances, maximizing his natural assets.
What I found most interesting was his ability to flash quick hands a couple of times during the game, which he used to great effect. The first instance occurred on the second play of the game, working against defensive end Allen Bailey, on which he was able to slap the defender’s hands down, contributing to him stumbling and taking himself out of the play as Villanueva rode him down. This enabled Landry Jones to have a clean pocket on which to take a deep shot down the field.
Later in the first, working against Tamba Hali out of the nickel, the edge rusher attempted to take a wide berth around the arc, but Villanueva again swatted at his inside arm, leading to him stumbling, which enabled the novice tackle to push him out of harm’s way and provide another clean pocket for a vertical throw, this time on third and five.
A couple of plays later, again facing a third-down situation, Villanueva was tasked with getting push for a short-yardage conversion on the ground. He got a good jump off the snap and fired into Bailey, staying stout to provide a seal for the lane through the B gap, which DeAngelo Williams exploited for six yards.
Of course, Bailey would not be had twice in a row. Three plays later, the talented end locked horns with Villanueva and tossed him upfield, making the tackle on his own against Williams on third and one.
About midway through the second quarter, facing a second and four, Villanueva lined up with a wide set, as the left tackle has often done this season for the Steelers. On this down, he sealed off Dee Ford, taking an even wider set himself, using his sheer size and power to take the young edge rusher out of the play as a hole opened behind him for a seven-yard gain.
He showed similar tenacity against Ford on the edge on the following play, though it was away from the action. On the ensuing second and eight, the Steelers got Villanueva on the move, throwing a hard chip on Bailey to work him inside before peeling out to try to pick off Derrick Johnson, the inside linebacker, though he was not entirely successful in doing so.
Though Hali ultimately won the war at the end of the game, he and Villanueva actually had some fine, competitive battles throughout the afternoon. Early in the third quarter, the edge rusher started on a wide rush before trying to come inside. Villanueva clamped down, but Hali got a stern punch in that knocked the tackle off his base. Ramon Foster was there to help him reset, recovering admirably.
It should not go without mentioning that Villanueva’s drive and hustle are two of his greatest allies, and that showed on Le’Veon Bell’s 42-yard run. His assignment was simply to chip and get to the second level, but when there was nobody to block, he looked for somebody.
As he watched Bell make the safety miss, he turned and sprinted upfield to wall off any potential inside defender should the back also be able to outrun the rest of the trailing defenders en route to the end zone.