The Pittsburgh Steelers have been fortunate to have such an excellent teacher during a season in which his students have seen so much misfortune. Such is the state of the offensive line under Mike Munchak, a unit fueling a top-10 offense without arguably its two best starters.
While the loss of Maurkice Pouncey cannot be overstated—the man has been to the Pro Bowl in every season in which he has played more than eight snaps—at least the team had a backup in Cody Wallace that would be prepared for such an event, a veteran who is in his third season with the team.
Such was not the case at left tackle when Kelvin Beachum was lost for the season with a torn ACL six games into the season. The fourth-year tackle came on big last year in pass protection, playing every snap of the season.
Starting in his place has been first-year tackle Alejandro Villanueva—not Mike Adams, the Steelers’ other fourth-year tackle, a former second-round draft choice who has been the top swing man whenever he has not been in the starting lineup.
The 6’9” Villanueva, an Army Ranger, certainly would not shrink from the challenge, but there can be no denying that his experience as a starting left tackle in the NFL is limited based on his performance.
But the 27-year-old has filled in admirably, for the most part, and has improved with time, even if he may always be fighting his tall frame working against elite pass rushers who can bend the edge.
And he credits his ability to step in entirely to Munchak, who has been the offensive line coach for the Steelers since Villanueva arrived here just before the start of the 2014 season as a practice squad addition.
In fact, he went so far as to tell Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that “I don’t think if I had tried to play O-line on another team I would have been able to do what I’m doing right now”, adding, “with another coach, I truly don’t think I could have played at this level”.
There is a natural camaraderie between the two, who have excelled previously at different spheres in their lives—Munchak as a Hall of Fame lineman, Villanueva as a decorated veteran of several armed combat campaigns.
Munchak describes Villanueva as somebody who “doesn’t want to let anybody down”, saying that it is “in his DNA”. At the same time, the former lineman is described by his pupils as “one of those guys you don’t want to disappoint and you don’t want to let down”.
This mutual accountability has taken the Steelers’ jury-rigged offensive line a long way, in spite of significant injuries and absences at all skill positions this season, including tight end. While Ben Roethlisberger has only played six games, he has only been sacked 10 times, which would work out to be the best ratio of his career. Meanwhile, the team has averaged 126 yards per game on the ground.
While the replacements have obviously not risen to the levels of those they have replaced, the fact that the Steelers have maintained any degree of consistency without them is a testament to the relationship that Munchak has built with men like Villanueva and Wallace, and the mutual respect on which those relationships are built.