I don’t think it’s much of a secret any longer that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ heart and soul right now is its offensive line. For as much as Le’Veon Bell might be otherworldly at the running back position, his yards before contact figures are as impressive as his yards after, and Ben Roethlisberger probably has several game jerseys he can easily reuse without a wash.
That didn’t happen overnight. It took years. And that development wasn’t done at the start of the 2016 season, either. They continued to grow into one another, and develop individually, and no lineman had as much room to grow as second-year left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
He has, of course, as I have previously written about in recent weeks, but in light of this past game, I wanted to highlight some of the Steelers’ tackle play against the Chiefs. I’m starting today with Villanueva, but I will be getting to Marcus Gilbert as well.
The former undrafted free agent has made major strides in many areas, so much so that the Steelers are even comfortable pulling him now, as he did on the Steelers’ opening drive, sealing off Justin Houston. Of course, as you can see, when you pull a tackle, you expose yourself to backside pursuit as well.
A couple of plays later on that same drive, he worked with the left guard to double team the right defensive tackle in the Chiefs’ red zone. That pair of double teams helped Bell rip off an eight-yard run up the middle to the five-yard line.
Early in the second quarter, Villanueva pulled for a second time to the right, this time working into the running lane and sealing off the inside linebacker. Bell once again had his hands full with back side pursuit, but made it work for a strong gain of nine yards.
On a run a couple of plays later, the Steelers ran a zone run to the right, with the entire line shifting in that direction. Villanueva’s assignment was to wash out the right inside linebacker, which he carried out well and allowed Bell to cut back for a seven-yard gain.
Still later on the same drive, the Steelers nearly scored a touchdown from 19 yards out, and Roethlisberger had all the protection he needed. His left tackle did an excellent job of commandeering Tamba Hali’s rush around the arc, making good use of about his extension and his footwork.
Toward the end of the first half, Villanueva continued his strong work in pass protection, this time against Houston. He showed his aggressiveness, getting his arms out in the rusher’s chest and then knocking his hands down, and Houston to the ground.
For as much talent as the Steelers have on both sides of the ball individually, to be blunt, I truly believe that they are going to go as far as the offensive line takes them. Their strong play more than anything has been the catalyst to their success over the second half of the season, and has allowed them to take over games, both physically and on the game clock.