A decade ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers won a Super Bowl with an offensive line that included Justin Hartwig and Darnell Stapleton at the heart of the unit. Now, no disrespect to them, certainly not as people, but one would be hardpressed to find a team that has won with a less skilled or accomplished front five.
Fast forward to today, and now Ben Roethlisberger finds himself as well-protected as anybody in the National Football League, with 60 percent of his offensive line having been named to the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive year.
And the biggest name for me this year is certainly left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Last season, I felt strongly that his vote into the Pro Bowl was not fully earned, but rather received a disproportionate boost because of fan attachment due to his stand during the national anthem controversy. It’s why he was the only offensive lineman in the top 50 in jersey sales.
This year? He completely earned it. He is certainly one of the top offensive tackles—not just left tackles—in all of the NFL, not just in his conference. While he has been docked for a handful of penalties, and given up a couple of sacks, Roethlisberger rarely has to be much concerned about his blindside. In fact, Pro Football Focus credits him with giving up the fewest pressures per snap in pass protection at his position this year.
In his fourth season now, Villanueva has been a bit of a slow starter as the year begins, but he didn’t have those growing pains this year, which was the biggest difference to previous seasons. I still think the best football of his career came at the end of the 2016 season, but 2018 was by far his most consistent.
And he is strong in all phases, not just in pass protection. He can run block and pull as well, executing stunts in the run and in pass protection and picking up defensive stunts effortlessly working with the even more underrated Ramon Foster.
With the seeming fall of Marcus Gilbert over on the other side at right tackle, the Steelers are fortunate to have the sort of stability that Villanueva, now 30, has been able to offer, and will hopefully continue to offer for several more years.
Matt Feiler is now another former undrafted free agent playing well on the right side, and perhaps into the future. Meanwhile, others like Jerald Hawkins and Chukwuma Okorafor can only sit behind them and wait.