As we will do every Saturday to get you ready for the week’s game, our X Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Our first X Factor article of the season, the key area to watch in Sunday afternoon’s contest with the Seattle Seahawks.
X Factor: Alejandro Villanueva
Last week, we pointed to Randy Fichtner and Keith Butler as X-Factors. And I think we were on the money with that choice, even if the opposite of the goal happened. Both coordinator’s called terrible games and the Steelers paid the price. We’ll see if we’re as on the money as this week.
I’m going to be blunt here. Villanueva played as bad a game as I’ve ever seen last week. As much flack as we’ve given the defense, much of it well deserved, to be clear, the offense did this team no favors. The o-line across the board struggled but none more than Villanueva. He was called twice for holding, routinely overpowered, and bested by LB Dont’a Hightower and rookie edge rusher Chase Winovich. Villanueva is normally a slow starter but not to this degree.
Things aren’t any easier in Week 2. He’ll primarily face Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney might not be the player he was hyped coming out of South Carolina but he’s still a major threat. Seattle’s system is better suited to his strengths. He can play with his hand down and focus on rushing the passer, not dropping back into coverage. And if Villanueva plays the way he did last week, he’ll make Clowney look like Khalil Mack.
It’s not like he’ll have a lot of help either. The tight ends most often line up on the right side, away from the left tackle, and they don’t figure to run many 2 TE sets. Xavier Grimble played just two snaps all last week. So expect Villy to be on an island. Ideally, the Steelers use slide protection to his side, turning Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster to the left and letting David DeCastro and Matt Feiler man up on the right side. It works well for two reasons.
1. Deny Clowney a two way go and inside rush.
Even if he’s given a two-way go, if you slide the protection his way, you clog up that B gap. Slide away and the DT can draw Foster away if he hits the A gap, giving Clowney plenty of space to work with. As I showed in yesterday’s scouting report, that happened here on LT Andre Smith.
If I'm Shaun Sarrett, I'm doing everything possible to slide protection to Clowney. Clog the A/B gap, force Clowney to try and win with the edge, let Villanueva set wide and run him up the arc. Clowney can win inside too easily with his quickness/hands. pic.twitter.com/e9NBxcQHje
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) September 13, 2019
So slide Pouncey to the left slide. That’s a good way to give help without a tight end or back getting involved (James Conner chipping would be helpful though).
2. It does the same for Ramon Foster.
He’s going to struggle when he has a lot of space to defend. This is against an off-ball linebacker but the idea applies to any quick pass rusher, even a bigger defensive linemen. Make him defend both sides and you’re in some trouble.
Eliminate that space and Foster is going to win most reps, his size and strength too overwhelming. Play to your strengths.
Obviously, you can’t slide all the time, protections and blitzes are going to dictate a lot, but it’ll help. And Villanueva winning his battles, mixing up his sets, using the strength on his punch, and keeping his base while defending the edge, will be critical in this one.