Life in the NFL for an offensive tackle is not an easy one. Not that playing along the interior is any easier, but it is the tackles who face the premiere pass-rushers week in and week out. You only have to take a look at who’s leading the league in sack. Two of them will be in this game.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of them in T.J. Watt, who has nine and a half sacks through nine games, technically on-pace to break the team’s single-season record of 16, set by James Harrison in 2008. And he’s fifth in the league.
Tied for third is Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns. Garrett was the first-overall pick in 2017. Watt was the 30th. They’ve overall had very similar careers up to this point, and it can certainly be debated as to who is better. Garrett has one more career sack in four fewer games. Watt has five more forced fumbles, plus two interceptions.
Alejandro Villanueva spent plenty of time during Watt’s rookie season going up against him. He called him a pest, or something synonymous, due to his intensity and relentlessness. He’s probably relieved he was moved to the other side in his second year.
But he gets another meeting with Garrett, whom he called “the best pass rusher in the NFL”, according to Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “If you’re playing a game, you don’t want to face Myles Garrett. That’s something every single tackle in the NFL will tell you. He’s a mismatch in terms of length, speed and that combination is not replicated in any other player”.
While it hasn’t come all against Villanueva, Garrett has recorded four sacks in three games against the Steelers over the course of his career, and has forced three fumbles—by Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, and James Conner. He also has four run stops in those games.
“Everything has to come on time or he’s going to be at the quarterback pretty quickly”, Villanueva told Gorman about Garrett “He has a repertoire of moves, so he’s not always doing the same thing and he’s moving around everywhere. He’s just a very good pass rusher. He’s got physical tools that nobody else has in the NFL, and he knows how to use them”.
And truth be told, what Villanueva will see tonight will be new to him. Garrett was active in the offseason about explaining how former Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams deliberately limited him to two pass-rushing moves, arguing that those are the two that he does best. He has flexed out his repertoire this season, and it is yielding predictable results. He is on pace to finish the season with 18 sacks.
Also new to the rivalry is the fact that he’ll have Sheldon Richardson alongside him. Fortunately, the Browns will be without Olivier Vernon, and Ramon Foster is returning after missing two games due to a concussion. But Garrett isn’t the only thing that they have to worry about on defense. It’s just the most important.