If the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to get into the postseason, they will need a quality left tackle once they are in there. And they have had the last nine games to determine whether or not Alejandro Villanueva can be that. While he has improved, I don’t think there is a clear answer, as we saw Sunday.
We saw on the first play of the game, for example, some of the advantages and disadvantages that he brings to the table. On an inside run, the Steelers had him chip the right end before picking up the inside linebacker at the second level, but C.J. Mosley was able to move him, and he wound up on his knees at the end of the play. His coordination is still a work in progress.
While he has been less susceptible to being beaten on stunts in pass protection, his recognition is still, at times, behind those with whom he has to work, the left guard in this instance. As the Ravens executed a stunt, the left guard immediately picked it up, but it took a moment for Villanueva to register that his assignment had changed with the lineman looping around him.
Early in the second half, he struggled to maintain leverage against Courtney Upshaw in the running game as the linebacker got an arm in his chest to create space and pushed off to attack the runner, making the tackle after a short gain. Villanueva has been inconsistent in using his great reach to his advantage.
Later in the third quarter, he gave up his first of two sacks to Baltimore’s rookie edge rusher, who, as with Upshaw, used his ability to get a hand in his chest to his advantage, driving the left tackle back in the pocket until he created an angle sufficient enough to disengage and go after the quarterback. This was a third and four play, it should be noted.
Still, there are moments of encouragement, particularly in pass protection, where you wonder how he might develop. Early in the fourth quarter, he displayed excellent handwork, showing quick reflexes to catch the pass rusher off guard. The pass ended up getting intercepted through no fault of his own, as he put his man on the ground.
Still later in the quarter, he put another edge rusher on the ground by chopping his arms down and knocking him off balance, while Villanueva maintained his base, allowing him to slide off and pin the linebacker down to end the threat.
Of course, before the game was over he ended up giving up a second sack, this one against Upshaw, who is more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher. Upshaw used excellent hand positioning to keep his chest free as he powered his way into the backfield, though he ended up going low at the quarterback, which could have drawn a penalty.